Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Unbound

My name is Jordi Tosas, and I’m a very simple person.  I simply earn my living in the mountains an I live in the mountains.  It’s as clear and simple as that.  I live with the sun, I celebrate each moment as if it were my last, and I hope to live many more years like this. 

Everyone with a pulse should watch this.

 

 

If you’re not up for 16 minutes of it, I’d start by saying you should re-evaluate your priorities, because whatever else you were going to do in the next 15 minute is less important.  Even so, if you’re only going to watch 2 minutes, watch the 2 starting at 14:00.

Then weep, quit your job, and reevaluate your life.

The Problem with this Nice House

A while back I watched Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Working title: “Tina Fey the War Correspondent”. It was nice. I laughed. I cried. I don’t know if those things are true, it was months ago. I remember enjoying it, I guess.

I remember very little of the plot – but the very rough arc is that a reporter from a local news station, bored, disillusioned with the state and progress of her life, takes an opportunity to be a war correspondent in Afghanistan. She gets there, it’s interesting, or something. I don’t know. She likes it? Epiphanies are had, I bet.

Here’s the important part, the tiny, throwaway bit that has stuck with me for the many months since forgetting the character’s name, or the finer points of the plot: While working in Afghanistan, the reporters live in pretty terrible conditions. They stay in (what appear to be) tiny, dirty apartments. They’re far from the comforts of home. The beds look terrible. These are professionals. They’re adults. They’re not destitute. But their living conditions are so unimportant as to not deserve any dialogue, any explanation or discussion, other than serving as a background to the story. Why?

I wouldn’t have acknowledged this before, certainly not out loud, but I equate the state of someone’s sleeping arrangements with their level of success. Mattress on the floor? That’s a raised eyebrow from me. Cot in a dirty apartment? Things must have gone terribly wrong.

The sleeping arrangements win WTF struck me as so interesting precisely because of what it said about what is important: These reporters were completely willing to sleep in what I’d probably refer to as unacceptable conditions because the rest of their days were so compelling. If you’re doing important work, work you believe in, and you’re giving it everything you’ve got, who cares what your sleeping arrangements are? Where you sleep is so trivial as to be completely irrelevant.

It’s been months, and this idea sticks in my head. I think about it every time we talk about putting new floors in upstairs, and we talk about that often. Every time we talk about a new kitchen appliance, or consider redoing the shower in the master bath. I thought about it when I excitedly brought home a big new TV at Christmas.

How stylish your house is, how big, comfortable, and well decorated your bed is – these things are most important to me when I’m so spectacularly bored with the rest of my life that I let myself believe they’re important, and that I care about them. My living arrangements are a distraction that I pull up to avoid facing hard truths about how much I care about the way I spend my time, the way I live my life.

I’d love to finish this post with how it’s convinced me to change my life and priorities, but I’m headed out to Lowe’s to look at flooring.

Consistency

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:

cheatsheet

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.

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 acebook.com 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 WordPress.com), 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 rentacoder.com. 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.