Be The River

These last few weeks have been quite a roller coaster for me.  I’ve had some very fun moments, but also some very stressful moments, long drives, battling extreme cold, being sick, snowstorms, and coming home from a short vacation to my basement flooded because of a burst pipe (caused by my boiler not working, so add to the cleanup efforts that my house has a lack of heat).  Looking back, I wouldn’t give my performance anything better than a B-minus, but I realize the one thing that kept me from utterly failing was my ability to be the river.

I work in technology, so the “stream” metaphor can start to grate on me and get old quickly, but I’m not talking about social streams, streaming media, or buffer streams, I’m talking about an actual river.  Flowing water which has a source, a path, and a destination.  What is amazing about water – and rivers in particular – is that they unmistakable despite being extremely dangerous in some areas and completely still in others.

If a river runs into something that stops it’s progress, it simply slows down and becomes calm.  It enjoys the break, while slowly working away at the tiniest of cracks until it can break through the obstacle.  It never gets frustrated, angry, it just remains calm and looks for the path of least resistance around the obstacle.  When the land is steep, the river rages quickly to get to the bottom, splashing, zigging, and zagging around rocks and other little obstacles letting almost nothing get in it’s way.

When times got crazy – like coming home and finding a burst pipe – the only thing that mattered was getting the cause found, the water shut off, then begin the emergency cleanup.  Like the raging river, I kept moving and getting things done.

As the week went on, and things calmed down, I started to look back and think back to this river metaphor.  I realize that it fits my philosophy on learning, education, programming, life, etc.  “Go with the flow,” some may say.  It also has become a great way for me to shrug off stress.  Not to say specific moments aren’t stressful, but, I can recognize that stress as a signal that this is time where the river will be fierce and full of rapids, and I need to change my priorities and work through this part as quickly and safely as possible until things calm down.  By doing this, when things do calm down, I don’t need to hold any of that stress.

I pushed myself to see if this metaphor held through with programming and it seemed to also hold true.  There are times where I can write 100+ lines of code in a day, and knock out tons of features.  Much of it has to do with the difficulty.  Not all programming problems are the same, just as math problems have different levels of difficulty.  But, sometimes I get stuck on a single line of code (or small bit of functionality) that will take me hours, sometimes days to complete.

So, next time things get crazy, remember that it is OK.  Speed your way through, be the river, and know that calm is ahead.  When things are calm, enjoy the peace.

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Identity

Identity is one of the strongest concepts of both life and technology.  Identities define who we are, what we can – and cannot – do.  They are extremely powerful, but with all power comes the potential for abuse.

To be honest, I’ve written this post many times before, yet, deleted them over and over again.  By the end, I either failed to clearly get my message across, or simply tried to say too much in 1000 or so words.  This is such a critical topic, that I wanted to do it justice.  I wanted to make sure that my words were clear, my story complete, and that people came out with a better understanding of the power of identity and how it can be used to make themselves better and to make their creations better.

The best place to start is probably the beginning.  When I was a kid, I was different from others.  And I had an ego to boot.  That combination made me an easy target for bullying.  At the time, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I can happily say that I made it out alive and with no physical scars and minimal emotional scars.  In fact, I’d even say that if it weren’t for the teasing and the bullying, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

It was either the summer before my junior or senior year of high school that I realized maybe it was something I was doing that brought about all the teasing.  At the time I couldn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t perfect, but I clearly saw that people didn’t see me as perfect.  The question became – how do I bridge the identity crisis I had that the identity I had for myself was different from the identity that others had placed on me.  This disconnect lead to miscommunication, and probably a large amount of bullying and teasing.

So began my yearly quest to re-evaluate my identity.  It started small – I tried to go through a week in my life in third person.  I watched my mannerisms, my words, and how they affected others.  Annoying traits that I had, I tried to suppress, and things that people enjoyed, I tried to accentuate.  It made things a little easier, but it didn’t get to the root of the problem – the identity I had given myself was not in tune with reality.  No amount of acting would change that.

After a few years of re-evaluation, I came across a crazy programming concept of the completely-mutable object.  This is a concept/object in which you do not predefine any functions or attributes.  They are all defined when the application is run.  This allows for great flexibility, but arguably, too much.  Imagine a car being able to transform into a plane, then a house, then a horse.  A drive down I95 becomes a bit more complex, no?

I discovered this concept around the same time as I was taking my yearly re-evaluation and I had an epiphany – maybe humans have a completely mutable identity, we just refuse to change the values.  This thinking took me down a path of complete mutability.  I mirrored the personalities of whomever I was spending time with.  I tried to give up the attributes that I thought were me while taking on new attributes.  The experiment had interesting results, but ultimately ended in failure.  For those who didn’t know me, they accepted my identity as whatever I showed them, which was very much a mirror of themselves.  For those that knew me, my changes caused confusion and uneasiness.

Ultimately, a mutable identity made me lose a sense of self, because I never knew if I was a car, plane, house, or a horse.  But, the experiment showed me that I don’t have to live in a box, and that I can have fun if I just let go.  It also taught me the power of perception.  Following this experiment, I quickly fell back into the old me, mainly because that is how others saw me and it was easier for me to accept that identity than to try to forge yet another.

Identity is a powerful force.  It is what leads to racism, hate, and mislead ignorance.  Evolutionary, it probably has some strong purpose.  We can learn which animal species we can trust, and which we must avoid.  We can learn behavioral patterns and apply them to other animals of the same species to best capture them or avoid being their prey.

Ultimately there are three identities in play when dealing with another human.  There is the identity that person believes, the identity you have formed from your interactions, and the identity you’ve inferred.  Inferred identity is where bias and prejudice comes from.  Someone wears a specific type of clothes, therefore they must be in a gang.  If they are in a gang, they are dangerous.  If they are dangerous, they should be avoided…  All of that inferred simply from an article of clothing.  Unless it’s a shirt with a gang slogan or emblem on it, with gang colors, in an area where that gang resides, it’s probably off base.

But then there is the more subtle identity crisis.  The one between the identity you’ve given someone and the identity they believe is their own.  Chances are, neither of those matches with reality, which increases the chances that those two identities differ.  It is true that first impressions are amazingly strong.  The identity you associate with someone when first meeting them sticks hard.  Meet someone when you’re having a bad day?  Chances are it will take you a long time for them to update their identity of you.

These disconnects lead us to fear and miscommunication.  How many times have you thought “X will may this person happy” then done X, and it didn’t make them happy?  From their side, they think, “How did they not know Y makes me happy?”  Everyone feels dissatisfied, simply because there was not an acknowledgement of the identity gap.  Worse is when we refuse to accept that an identity has changed.  Treating an adult like a child, or a smoker who wants to quit as still a smoker.  By pushing your concept of an identity on someone else, you could make it more difficult for that person to change their own identity.

I used to think it was love that would save the world – compassion.  While we need compassion, the only thing that will save the world is education, understanding, and an acceptance that identities are both mutable and powerful.  There are religious zealots who cannot let go of words spoken over 1500 years ago and continue to fight and kill an enemy that they cannot possibly reason with.  The identity gap is simply too far.  Around the world, there is conflict everywhere that stems so greatly from identity gaps.  Pride and the inability to accept that the identities you have for people and yourself may not match up with reality have held us back from such great progress.

This is normally the point where I read through what I’ve written, and delete it all, because I’ve failed to convey my message, or worse, failed to come up with a conclusion that tied it all together.  While a better writer would have done a much better job, this message will reach your eyes, and hopefully the message will be clear.  I have no conclusion, and by far I have no solution.  But, I hope to continue to educate, and to share my insights and maybe even inspire people to be happier, and to help others be better.  It’s hard to think of myself as a grown man, because inside I feel like a child, still searching for his purpose, searching for his identity.  I’ve spent years refining, chipping away at the ego I hated so much, and trying to bolster the good.  I’ve come so far, but my journey has barely begun.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

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Responsibility

Zen Digest

  • We have a responsibility to do the right thing
  • Our responsibility is derived from a desire to persist the human race

The Whole Picture

When we produce, we affect the world around us.  Every action we have has consequences.  Every plant we plant reduces carbon in our atmosphere, while every mile we drive in our car increases carbon.  Every mile we walk instead of drive saves potential emissions.

But there are less black and white cause and effects.  I started my corporate life in the Finance industry.  For the most part, the products we created helped the rich get richer.  At the end of the day, I wanted to have a more positive impact on the world around me, so I got back into the start-up world working on products that provided more value to general consumers.

But, on an even smaller scale, the decisions we make – such as build or buy – when it comes to software or technology make a great difference.  You could upgrade your phone every 2 years, or every 3.  The amount of waste saved by upgrading every 3 truly adds up.  Also, when faced with having to create your own solution to a problem, if you can find an existing solution, you can save yourself days of work with simply a small amount of up-front research.  This time can be spent solving bigger and more complex problems.

Education is the crux of all of this.  We must constantly learn about how our world works.  Everything we do has a cost, and it isn’t always in dollars.  In fact, it’s often the items that cost the least amount of money that have the greatest overall cost to the world.

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Check the Obvious

Zen Digest:

  • When diagnosing a problem, let go of assumptions.
  • Check things that would make you say “I can’t believe it was that!”

The Whole Picture:

Growing up, my family had a tradition of putting up Christmas lights.  We were hardly the Griswolds but we had enough lights and surface area to cover to require an entire day of untangling clusters of lights, determining a pattern, and getting everything working.  This was many years ago, and we bought the budget lights, so if one bulb went out, the entire string didn’t work.  With my father’s desire to fix things that are broken, if a cluster of lights went out, he was determined to find the bulb that was broken (or fuse that was blown) and replace it.

Most years went smoothly with only a small amount of clusters out, but one year was exceptionally bad.  It was a year where my sister and I were a bit more grown up, so the excitement of putting up lights began to wane.  My father, determined to keep the spirit up (and/or driven by my mother asking him to put up the lights), decided to start putting the lights up in the front of the house.  An hour or so after untangling and laying out the lights, my father came inside and hunted for every spare bulb and fuse he could find.  He went back outside to find the illusive burnt-out bulb.  More time passed and he came back inside to grab the car keys – he was off to the store.  He came back with $40 worth of spare parts.  Mind you – he probably could have bought a whole new set of lights for the front for that price – but he was determined to solve the problem at hand.

At this point I was awake (or had come back from whatever activity I was doing that morning) and he asked for my help.  Whenever I was around he tried to set a good example, so normal corner-cutting (measure-once cut-twice, taking small risks, etc) got sidelined.  For him, rule #1 when working with anything that plugs in is to unplug it.  We go outside with the spare parts and he gave me instruction #1: “Go unplug the lights.”  I walked over to the plug and noticed the lights were already unplugged.  “Hey dad.  They are already unplugged.”  I stared at the plug and placed it in the outlet.  The lights magically turned on.  My father had set everything up and simply forgotten to plug them in.

We get wrapped up in our tasks, and frustration can often blind us to possible solutions.  “The last time this happened, X was the solution,” leads us to try X, then when X doesn’t work, we look for more obscure of difficult problem/solutions – because we assume the simple solutions were covered.  In programming, forgetting a period or semi-colon can cause an entire application to crash or behave incorrectly – such a simple thing.  Ever leave your keys in the lock?  Always check the obvious.

 

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Make Someone Smile

The end result of nearly everything we do in life should be to make someone smile.  By setting a goal to make someone smile randomly, you will create a much better experience.

Making an application where there is a 10 second wait time?  Sure, you could have your basic hourglass or spinner, but what about a smiley face?

Ultimately it comes down to surprises.  Have you ever been to an office that has a silly poster up next to the copy machine or office printer?  You often have about a minute of downtime while your document prints, and you could pull out your phone and check messages, but you often look around and do nothing.  A simple poster gives you something to read – and a chance to smile.

Little things like this add up.  Back in college, I ran I website called CollegeBoredom.  My roommate, to help promote, printed up signs that said “Thanks to wifi, this stall brings you CollegeBoredom.com!” and it included a random funny image from the site.  He stuck them in bathroom stalls around campus.  Since smartphones weren’t a thing at the time, people read the posters, laughed, and I saw a pretty big spike in traffic.

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The Future

The future lies somewhere between science fiction movies and the so-called realistic predictions being made today.  Technology born from scientific breakthroughs often comes relatively quickly and far exceeds people’s expectations.  Imagine how the world changed for people who first witnessed a radio transmission – being able to transmit a message without wires over a large distance near immediately.  The predictions on how such technology will bring on the demise of society or utopia are also never really true.

Technology may change how humans interact and live, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are humans.  The most important thing we can do to prepare for the future is to ensure we embrace our fellow humans with love.  Nuclear power – when used peacefully – creates an abundance of low-cost energy.  When embraced with hate, creates destructive bombs that level cities.

 

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Stand Up

Stand up for yourself and others.  Never be ashamed of your feelings – if you feel them they are real.

While this isn’t particularly tech related, I mention it because cyber-bullying is rampant and the internet can be a dismal place if you look in the wrong corners (or in the comments thread in youtube).

The good news is that there is hope.  Just stand up for yourself and others.  Be confident in who you are and what you want to do, and don’t let others put anyone down for being who they are.

“But don’t feed the trolls” they say.  You can respond without feeding the trolls – it is a simple: “That’s inappropriate and not appreciated.”  A simple statement that states facts and ends the conversation.  It is also gentle enough that you can say it to a friend at a party who speaks out of turn, or a random stranger on the net who is spewing hate speech.  It also isn’t an attack.  When you fight fire with fire all you breed is destruction.

It also applies to ageism, sexism, racism, or even uncomfortable workplace teasing.  You can even shorten it, “That wasn’t appreciated.”  Get comfortable saying it.  Say it often.  Say it for your friends when they aren’t comfortable to speak for themselves.  Say it for anonymous people on the net who are too scared to comment back.

Finally – don’t be your own worst enemy.  If you find yourself saying or thinking negative about yourself – tell yourself “That’s inappropriate and not appreciated.”  A positive attitude will help you learn, will help you adapt, will help you smile, and will help you enjoy life.  You must be your own advocate.

Have a wonderful day.

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Manipulation

When you have your balance, it is hard to get knocked over.  When you are off balance, it is easy to fall.  As you fall, instinct tells you to grab on to whatever you can to stabilize.  This is the crux of fear-based marketing.

I realize this is not exactly a post about technology, but I thought it was relevant.  If you ever find yourself afraid or worried – if you read something or interact with software that makes you uncomfortable or scared – stop.  Take a breath and do your research.  Most viruses work by playing your fears.  They show you a popup telling you that you have a virus (which you don’t) and that you will lose everything, but if you install this anti-virus, the virus will go away.  The anti-virus you end up downloading is the virus itself.  Because you want to rid yourself of the original “virus” you end up agreeing to install and give control of your device to this “anti-virus.”  Once installed, you’re done for.

The same works in product marketing.  A company tells you your child will be harmed if they use a specific type of spoon.  A comedian once quipped that he was going to sell a cereal that featured on it’s box “Arsenic Free.” just to make you think the other cereals had arsenic in them.  Not to say threats aren’t real, but you should always do your research, you should always verify facts – especially when provided in an advertisement.

While others can influence your emotions, they are yours, and you shouldn’t let others control them.  You always have the power to stop, relax, take a breath and re-balance yourself.

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Steps

The average human walks a distance of nearly 100,000 miles during their lifetime.  If taken all in one direction that would get you around the entire world 5 times.  If you walk aimlessly, chances are you will end up not far from where you started.

The same is true of any goal.  It is achievable if you are willing to take the necessary steps.  For some, a goal may require more steps, but rarely is it unobtainable.  Unreasonable – maybe, impossible, rarely.

If you always have a goal, and are always taking steps towards it, you will achieve it.

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Be Awesome

Whatever you do, be awesome.  If you play a game, make sure that you and the people you are playing with have the best time ever – remember, it’s just a game.  If you’re creating something new, give it personality, make the user smile.  If you’re helping someone out, take the time to understand their problem and steer them down the path to success.

Your actions have ripples.  Negative actions will affect people in a negative way – increasing the chances they will pass along that negativity.  Positive actions will make others happy, and increase the chances they will do the same.  Being awesome can sometimes shake people of their normal movements and inspire them to be awesome as well.

Remember, be awesome:

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