My coworker Joe posted about consistency in fitness a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been stewing over it since.

I have a lot of ideas.  I’m interested in a lot of things.  All the time.  That’s good – I like being excited about life, learning, and experiences.   I want to know how the universe works.  I want to understand the details That led to WWII.  I want to understand calculus.  Really understand calculus.  I want to learn how to fix my car.  I want to write machine learning algorithms.  I want to be able to run fast.  I want to build a sprinkler system controller that interfaces with my phone.  I want to explore strange places.  I want to start another business. I want to be good at growing tomatoes.  I want to climb mountains.  Lots of them.

I also have a full time job, and a wife, and some kids.  I can’t do everything I want to do.  Even without the job, wife, and children, I couldn’t do them all. Progressing at any single thing comes at the expense of several others, at least in the short term.

What’s left is a question of priorities: what do I most want to learn, do, experience?

All this does have something to do with consistency.  In order to achieve consistency, and its benefits — to commit the time and effort toward a goal day after day for long enough to gain traction and get somewhere — requires real commitment.  Maintaining that commitment means trusting the initial decision, and sticking to it, which feels like a terrible thing – ignoring the ten things you want to do for the one thing you’re actually doing.

So, what is consistency to me, really?  It’s making a decision, and then not second guessing it for long enough to see it through.

Need Keyboard Shortcuts? Use Cheatsheet.

If you use a computer much at all, you quickly realize that time spent reaching for your mouse is time wasted.  It sounds trivial, but somehow, the effort to move your hand to the mouse, move it to figure out where the cursor is, and then do whatever it is you need to do has a magical ability to slow me down and break my concentration. Any time I can keep my hands on the keyboard rather than the mouse or the trackpad, it’s a victory.

So, it was with great excitement that I happened upon CheatSheet today.  Install it, and hold down the command key, and voila:


A list of keyboard shortcuts for the current application.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t catch all shortcuts in every app – but it’s useful enough to install.

Being Reliable

I’m a sucker for digest emails from Quora.  They get me to click through nearly every time, because they’re routinely filled with really great content.

A couple days ago I ran across the question “From the perspective of a CEO, what are the most underrated skills most employees lack?”  A terrible question, slathered in things that annoy me – “most underrated”? “most employees lack?”  It all makes me think of stupid life hacks, and people looking for secret shortcuts – but it had some really great answers just the same.  This one from Auren Hoffman really stuck out to me:

If you consistently do what you say you will do, you will almost certainly be someone people desire to have on their teams.  It is so rare that when you work with someone who is reliable, you never ever want to work with anyone else.  You will do anything to keep that person on your team.
Doing what you say you are going to do starts with setting the right expectations.  If you tell someone you will get them the deliverable by Tuesday, you need to understand that it can actually be delivered by Tuesday.  If you are good, you are probably factoring in slack in case someone in corporate slows you down or your child gets sick.

And so if your boss wants something done Monday and you think it cannot be done until Wednesday, you need to be up-front.  Because once a date is agreed to, you’re on the hook for accomplishing it.


On its face, this seems super obvious (which makes it even better – it’s not sneaky or surprising or underrated) – but it got me thinking: am I lax in doing what I say I’ll do?  How bad is it? How annoyed are people with me about it?  Not just at work either – at home, and anywhere else I interact with people, how often do I treat spoken agreements with nothing more than passing interest – to be fulfilled if I happen to remember?

So I’ve been giving some thought to being more reliable.  Auren hits on these points briefly in his post, but it’s worth fleshing out: what does it take to be more reliable?

For me, it’s 2 things:

1. Remembering what it is I say I’ll do.

I’ve got a terrible memory, and as I said, I treat conversations pretty lightly. As a result, I often just forget things that are talked about, or agreed upon.  upon reflection, I realize how terrible that really is.  So step 1 is to start writing down everything I agree to – from work plans to calling the eye doctor and making an appointment.

2. Saying no.

When you don’t put much stock in your verbal agreements, yes comes quickly and easily.  Why wouldn’t it, if it’s meaningless?  The problem with following through is that you quickly find yourself too busy to finish everything you’ve agreed to – meaning that if you really want to do what you say, you’ve got to get real about your time constraints, workload, and priorities – and say no much more often.

The Dark Side of Trial and Error

I’m a trial and error kind of guy. It’s how I got through the few math classes I got through in high school, and how I learned to code. It’s still how I code, more often than I like to admit. It’s like a trusty friend, and it’s always there for me. Except when it’s not.

I own an old Honda Civic. It’s a relic from my pre-child, pre-wife days. I’ve thought about getting rid of it a number of times, but I can’t really pull the trigger. It takes me hiking, and skiing, and to the airport when I don’t have the family with me. And it’s fun to drive.

However, it’s no spring chicken. It’s almost 2 decades old. If cars could get driver’s licenses, it would be able to drive itself. Still, I hang onto it.

About a year ago, I realized the rear passenger door wouldn’t open from the outside. I thought it was locked. It wasn’t. Weird. It opened just fine from the inside, was definitely unlocked, but would not open from the outside. Nobody ever really rides in the car with me though, and certainly not enough people to require filling up the backseat, so I ignored it.

A few months go by, and this has become very occasionally annoying. If I ever need to put something in the back seat, I invariably try the passenger side first, and then have to walk around to do it, or to open the passenger door from the inside. I’m annoyed enough now that I’m passively trying to figure out how I’m going to fix it.

Until one day, when it finally hits me. I sat down in the car to drive to the office, and the thought of the non-working rear passenger door flashed through my head. And so did the solution. Of course! How could I be so stupid! The child lock! It’s got to be the child lock! I bet my son did it. Little rascal.

I got out of the car, reached through from the driver side to the passenger side, and opened the door. Ran around the outside to the passenger side.

I got down to have a look, and the child lock wasn’t on, as I expected – it was off. Weird. But that was easily explained, right? I had never actually used the child lock on this car. I bet the sticker is just upside down or something. That happens, right? Sure. Just flip the switch, it will work. Awesome.

So I toggle the child lock. At this point, it appears I’ve turned the child lock on – but hey, trial and error. And I shut the door. And in the very moment that the door slams shut, I remember how child locks actually work – by disabling the interior handle, not the exterior one.

And that was the last time that door ever opened.

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.

So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.

School: the Farmers’ Almanac of Success

Spoiler: The Farmers’ Almanac is terrible at actually forecasting the weather.

I’ve never been a particularly good student. In fact, in high school, you could safely classify me as a “poor” student. I was lazy. I had a hard time paying attention in class. I often misunderstood (or completely ignored) the concepts being taught. I almost never did homework. I graduated on time, but my doing so was more uncertain than I like admitting.

I feel like my school career up to that point was particularly hard on my parents: being told by teacher after teacher that I could be great, if I just applied myself. The subtext seemed to be: “Well, you got the genetics right, but you raised a lazy, apathetic child. You should try harder.”

I was just a bad student.

After high school, things didn’t change. I got accepted to a few 4 year schools (due entirely to my ability to do well on standardized tests), but I ended up attending the local community college. I continued to flounder there, and gave up after a few years of lackluster effort.

Somehow, giving up on community college was the right choice. Things slowly started to improve. I taught myself to bumble through code (which had been of interest to me for years), and started doing maintenance and small website projects for people. I really enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning on my own, so I excelled. In some ways, this was surprising: I enjoyed learning, and I was good at it.

This love for code and fascination with learning slowly blossomed into a career – a great career that supports my family, in a growing industry, doing work I love. I naiively assumed that everything would work out in the long run. I was never worried about being dumb, or not being able to make it.

But I imagine there are lots of kids who do poorly in school — who refuse to memorize formulas, who can’t force themselves to do homework, who realize suddenly halfway through a lecture that they have no idea what is going on — and assume that this is indicative of their chances at success. It must be terrifying for them, and for their parents.

Good news! I’m not dumb, or lazy, or even “bad at learning”. Worst case, I’m “different”. I didn’t learn very well via traditional methods. As it turns out, that just means that I don’t learn very well via traditional methods. That’s all. It doesn’t mean I can’t be gainfully employed, or productive, or happy, or successful. It just means I was bad at school.

And nobody pays me to go to school.

Some people excel in school, and continue to after, just as we all assumed they would. Some people excel in school, and struggle after. Some people struggle in school, and excel after. My high school grades did not define my future. I’m guessing it’s this way with nearly any time period in life:

My current (if temporary) trajectory always feels permanent. If things are going well, I slip into the mindset that I’ve made it, and it will be smooth sailing from here on out. The fight is over, the good guys won. Conversely, a few bad days, poor decisions, or bad luck too easily feel like our lot in life.

I suppose I have to take some tips from my irresponsible, lazy, shortsighted high school self. Nothing is certain. Your current situation does not determine your future. So keep working.

Are Dads Allowed to Ski?

I grew up in Colorado, but I didn’t ski as a child. If I had to guess why, I’d blame money. Skiing is expensive. The gear is expensive, the lift tickets are expensive, and I grew up out on the plains – so the gas to get there was also expensive.

Around the time I was 15, I got it into my head that I was really going to like skiing. Pretty abruptly, I went from not skiing at all to skiing a few times a month. Nearly all my money went to gear, gas, and passes. I was in love. My group of friends rallied around skiing, going up together whenever we could.

After high school, I slowly fell out of touch with my old friends, but my love for skiing intensified. So I skied alone. By the time I was 21, I was skiing every week, at least. Some weeks I managed 2 or 3 days. I became a skier – not in the sense that I was a person who could ski, or happened to choose skiing over snowboarding, but that my sense of self was hopelessly intertwined with the mountains, the snow, the cold air, the speed, the exploration, and solitude. I defined myself as a skier, in the way a priest defines himself through his religion. I couldn’t imagine a life where skiing didn’t play a central role.

And then I grew up. I got married. I started a business. I became a dad. And I stopped skiing.

To some extent my love for the sport had faded, but mostly life got in the way. Things that were previously unimportant became important. Work. Stability. Family time. Things that were important before became trivial. It’s tough to enjoy a powder day if your family doesn’t have money for food.

Becoming a dad represents a shift in priorities. We’re all out to be the best parents we can be. We love our children, and we want them to succeed, so we do the most obvious thing we know how to do: help. Get involved. Give attention. Protect.

Parenting becomes who we are: our greatest purpose, and the only ambition we see as truly worthwhile.

Something about this has always felt off to me. Before I had kids, I watched it happen to others: people sacrificing who they were completely to fill their new role as parents. It’s a goal too noble to question – a martyrdom of self in the name of the most sacred ideal of our generation: “the children”. No one dares question the lengths a parent goes to help their child succeed.

I love my kids, and I want them to succeed, of course – but what is the endgame? Does “success” mean “growing up with the sole purpose of giving my life to a child, just the way my parents have”? If I, through example, show that my life and happiness is secondary to my children’s, will I be satisfied when I watch them do the same with children of their own?

I believe that the strongest influence on my kids will be who I am. My actions represent what my children will understand “normal adulthood” to be. The things that are important to me are likely to seem important to them, even if they end up on a vastly different path.

So what are the things I want my kids to pick up? Of course, I want my kids to know that I love them, and that their happiness and success is central to my happiness. I want them to see how important family is, and how fulfilling it is to give your love, attention, time, and money to a child.

But that’s not everything I want them to learn from my actions.

I want them to learn how important it is to have a strong marriage – one in which the parents care about each other as much as they care about the children. I want them to learn that nature is a powerful and important part of life. I want them to see that spending some time alone is an acceptable and healthy goal. I want them to see that doing things for yourself – just for your own happiness and enjoyment – is more than just a luxury, it’s important. I want them to know that their own happiness is a valuable resource requiring attention, regardless of what else is happening in their lives.

And if I’m totally honest with myself, I want my kids to be raised by a dad they could find interesting.

Some people just seem to “get” this: effortlessly finding the right place for them on the spectrum between children and self, and between adventure and stability. Maintaining who they were before kids, with a new perspective – a life fundamentally unchanged, but now lived through a new perspective, seen through a new lens.

Specifically where I end up on that spectrum isn’t important. What is important is that it’s a conscious decision rather than one defaulted to because it felt the safest or the most socially acceptable.

I’m going to try to make a point of skiing a little more this winter. Not a lot — maybe a few days a month. We’ll ski as a family some of those days, and that will be great — but dad will have a few days on the mountain to himself as well.

I think we’ll all be better for it.

The Treachery of Optimism

I used to own a business. It was successful, and I’m very proud of it – but it wasn’t a home run. Most of the time it was just successful enough to not be a failure. I paid enough of my bills every month to avoid serious discomfort. When things were good, we caught up. When life was expensive, we fell behind.

The service I offered – a backup and security product for WordPress websites called CodeGarage – came with stress. The code didn’t always work right, and when it went bad, people were occasionally left hanging. If customers got hacked, or new customers needed help cleaning up the mess left by hackers, they were impatient to see results and have things get back to normal. I worked a lot of late nights, cleaning up problems and helping customers. I enjoyed the work, but the stresses it created were not trivial.

Over time I grew tired of the endless financial stress, and felt like I was stagnating professionally. I wasn’t growing as a developer or a business owner, I was just keeping my head above water. In an effort to figure out how to keep moving forward, I applied to, and eventually sold CodeGarage to Automattic (the company behind, joining them as a developer. Personally and professionally, this was a huge victory; vindication that the hard work of the prior years was worthwhile. To top it off, Automattic was (and continues to be) a dream job — a company I had watched and admired for years, which turned out to be even better on the inside than it appeared on the outside.

Overnight, my lifestyle changed significantly. I had gone from a struggling small business owner to an employee. I knew exactly how much money I’d make every month. It was enough money, every time. I knew when it would hit my bank account. I even had health insurance. Real health insurance.

Not all the change was financial. I slept more, and I slept better. I was easier to be around. I could take time off. I lost weight. I could go an entire weekend without working. The release of stress and the accompanying benefits was not slow and gradual – it was abrupt, and obvious.

But somehow, things felt off. I was restless. Uncomfortable. In spite of the fact that I was making enough money to live comfortably, my work/life balance was better, and my stress was way down, I couldn’t shake the idea that something was missing.

My entire adult life had been about hustle: after eeking out a high school diploma, I floundered at community college. Soon after, I found myself working in a factory. I was unhappy, and I knew I could do better. So, in those long nights on the factory floor, I convinced myself that things could get better. Hard work could create a better career, a better life.

Struggle became my life, my mantra. Each step along the way was a victory – the first time I convinced someone to let me build a website for them. The first time I won a job on The first paying customers for my SAAS business. The most crucial piece though — the thing that made it all tolerable, even exciting — was the dream. Owning a big, self-sustaining business. Thousands of customers. Financial freedom. The big payout.

Struggling to get by, and to convince myself (and those around me) that owning a business is a good idea, I felt like I had to dream big. Working long hours and dealing with constant stress (financial and otherwise) didn’t feel worth it if the payout was just an unstable income, and less flexibility than a normal employee has.

As a business owner, it’s easy to believe that you’re just one big deal, one solid marketing campaign, one killer feature away from massive growth. This optimism isn’t necessarily irrational. CodeGarage saw at least 2 occasions that worked exactly like this: events, ideas, or sales that singularly propelled the business to a new level. Without the continuous belief that things will continue working out, and continue growing, I’d have quit or failed long before any money was made. This was the required mindset in order to keep going. However: it came with side effects.

Since I was convinced that I was just a few good decisions, ideas, or turns of fate away from greater success, I knew that these things would come to me. They’d happen, and probably soon. Success was not a question of if, but when, and more than that, it was “how soon”.

In practice, that meant I knew that within some period of time, the business would be successful enough that any of my current problems — work/life balance, money, stress — would disappear. So why bother worrying about them?

Assuming that impending success will solve all of your problems is a bit like praying instead of going to the doctor. It gave me the acute ability to ignore, or at least postpone dealing with problems. Financial problems (say, the massive expense of childbirth without maternity coverage, or poorly calculated tax liabilities) in particular were easy to ignore, as I was convinced greater success would soon solve them.

Of course, living like this is precarious. I slowly realized that while it did just take a few events to massively change a business, I might not have the requisite skills to facilitate those events, or I might not be able to learn them as quickly as circumstance demanded. Most terrifying, they might come too late. I was fortunate to land at Automattic, where I can continue to learn and grow. Maybe someday I’ll end up running a business again – this time with a new array of skills and tools to find success.

This brings me back to the vaguely unsettled feeling I developed after a time in my new, stable job. I had grown to believe massive (and most importantly, financial) success was just around the corner, all the time. In many ways, moving to my current job is that success I sought. However, it’s not “buy a yacht” success. Or “Own a second home at a ski resort” success. It is “Improve your skills working on interesting projects with smart people while not having to worry about whether your child can go to the doctor next month” success.

Having a job with a stable income, and compensation not tied directly to performance (at least, not in the way it is as a business owner) has meant accepting that I’m not going to buy a yacht next year. Conversely, it meant that I could buy a comfortable house this year. Much more importantly, it means that any financial problems I run into actually have to be dealt with, and not put off until the next theoretical deal can erase them. It’s a bit like losing touch with an old, fun loving, terribly irresponsible friend.

I’ll miss you, buddy.