This month’s Groundhog Day Resolution review day is the mid-year opportunity to make a course correction. However, so far things have been going pretty well if not entirely to plan. As a bonus, I seem to have stumbled into a formula for maintaining my own peculiar version of life balance.
UPDATE: I’ve gone back and edited this significantly because it marks a new personal insight, and I want to capture the thinking behind it more accurately.
The Story So Far
At the beginning of GHDRR for the 2012 year, I affirmed the following desirable conditions:
- Raising income by building passive income. That would allow me to work less to support myself, freeing up time to do interesting projects.
- Making time to commune with people.
- Being around nice people who strive for excellence.
Before, I saw the achievement of these goals as a call to create better habits for myself that would help establish a more accessible personal brand. With better habits and increased accessibility, I would then be setting myself up for success. With success would come income, which would allow me to pursuing activities I enjoyed without worrying about where the money was coming from. Essentially: build a business based on my values that sustains me without draining my energy. It took several years to figure out it was OK to want that. The hard part is execution: the discipline to stick with it and keep plodding forward while waiting for the payoff.
As uncertainty and deferred reward are my two worst-case morale crushers, I’ve found myself re-inventing my goals every year to keep my spirits from flagging. My “Groundhog Day Resolutions” system is one example of this, harnessing the latent humor I find in prognosticating rodents to force periodic progress reviews. The latest focus on my website/identity, that of becoming a “marker of functional stationery”, was yet another course adjustment made to identify a niche market, further clarifying what I offer. And just last month, I switched course yet one more time, as evidenced by the new tagline: Exploring Dreams, Actions, and Excellence.
Up to now, I figured all this changing was just the long twisty road toward building a business and discovering what that meant along the way. The common wisdom is to converge on a niche and serve it well, and as this makes sense in an increasingly specialized world. I’ve seen several productivity-focused websites over the years do just that, becoming enormously popular while I’ve putt-putted along. I directly ascribed my lack of velocity to a lack of personal focus: if I had stuck with one thing that people out there really wanted, perhaps I would have risen to greater success. But, being unsure about what that “one thing” was, I was content to putter.
Breaking from Wisdom
After deciding that I needed to get back to writing about everything, I’ve come up with a different formula for determining what’s right. I’ve been accepting and indulge my own definition for excellence, instead of trying to find a commonly-held definition to hold tight to. Rather than stick with “Dave Seah: Maker of Functional Stationery” as the primary focus, my explosion of side projects has been (or rather: has felt) very productive. That’s counter to the common wisdom that prevails regarding personal productivity: that mindful and frequent culling of stalled and non-essential projects is necessary to maintain productivity. Here’s a list of the projects that kicked-off in the past four weeks, and are in-progress right now:
- Building and maintaining the sub-irrigation Tomato planters, which finally puts a multi-year thought experiment into practice. The upside down tomatoes, I’m sorry to report, aren’t doing quite as well.
- A shoebox filing system to consolidate all my stalled projects into one place.
- Index card docks, which grew out of a whimsical desire to stand cards up on my desk. This has given rise to new explorations of wood finishing, so I can finally have my own Etsy store.
- Acquiring the elements to create a music exploration program based on different keys; I’d stumbled upon a program called Max 6 that has all the interfacing logic built-in, so I don’t have to learn to write MIDI and synthesis routines myself.
On top of all this, I’ve had other stuff going on:
- I ran out of stock on both the Emergent Task Planner Sticky Pads and the 75-Sheet Emergent Task Planner Pads. Since I have been saving the money coming in from my Amazon Store, I have enough to order a bigger run of 1000 pads. This is the biggest run yet, and it’s awesome that I could just use the money in the account to feed into production.
- I’ve been doing more computer programming, using a 3D library and some of my own code, for the Illinois Holocaust Museum to refresh an old exhibit. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the weeds doing this kind of programming work, but it’s been very instructive to observe how I dealt with it. I’m an OK programmer with a relatively small working memory, so getting into “programmer mode” requires me to flush my brain of everything inside it. It’s expensive, and I don’t really like doing it, and when I’m implementing new systems from scratch I’m also facing the demons of uncertainty and deferred payoff. That is one of the biggest demotivators I have to deal with, and I spent a couple days in avoidance of starting the task. What ultimately got me moving, though, was just writing about it in a process journal. I’ve known before that writing is the way I get unstuck. I’m amazed how well it works. I start telling a story to myself, and then the brain naturally follows along.
- Al Briggs and I are finally exploring an iPad app, a version of the Emergent Task Planner. I’ve seen a preliminary screen shot, though I haven’t seen it working yet because I don’t have an iPad yet. I’m close to having enough money saved up for a fancy iPad 3, so I’m looking forward to getting into that.
- I made several connections with people who are doing cool things. I wrote about a few of them in the new clippings category, and met with acquaintances new and old: Rod Conard, a change management consultant with a deep background in behavioral psychology and organizational development, not only gave me a surprising take on personality typing, but he also reminded me that I’m not alone in my appreciation of process excellence. Aaron Mahnke, another maker of process-oriented stationery and creative multi-hyphenate, treated me to lunch as we talked shop about our experiences…it was great to meet someone who is actually making stuff! I also caught up with my friend Gary, a hugely-talented multidisciplinary artist who makes perfect reproduction parts for vintage vehicles, and shot the breeze on our various projects. It has been fantastic to spend time talking to people who are making and doing thing, and it makes me want to work harder.
- Writing about all the above, as it happens, here on the blog.
It may look like a lot of stuff, but the pacing has been fairly relaxed. I don’t have kids OR a girlfriend at the moment, so I’ve been living quite the life of the hermit free from external pressures. So while I’ve been productive, I haven’t been going out as much or hanging with friends. Partly this is because my head is so immersed in the process of making things and writing that I am finding it difficult to relate to local concerns or television. I’ve also been sleeping weirdly, waking up when I wake up and working until I get tired at all hours of the day. As a result, I’m not very much in synch with my local peeps. There are huge downsides: the lack of companionship and feelings of being disconnected socially are the ones that come to mind. More important to me, though, is the desire to make something happen. This has been building up for a long time, and instead of suppressing these desires I’ve let them start to explode in a controlled manner.
When I first started on this journey of self-employed exploration in 2005, I was dealing with what I’ll call the first stage of achievement: good things were not happening quickly enough for me to feel good all the time. I wrote a lot, made the Printable CEO, and joined a then-influential blog network called 9rules. This created a sustaining trickle of “feeling good” about what I was doing, which was very energizing. This does plateau, though. At some point the numbers stop rising as the Internet finds something new to entertain itself with. You are left wanting more, having had a taste of what being appreciated for who you are really feels like.
The second stage of achievement was to learn how to make a living while feeling good; Tim Ferriss’ book The 4 Hour Work Week came out around then, giving me a sense of what it could be like. And so, I made my first printed product in 2007 with the hopes that it could be a sustaining business. In 2012, it still is not a sustaining business, but I can at least now see that it COULD be. It is profitable; the challenge now is to create more products for sale so the total volume of profit is something I can live on. That’s what business is, apparently! It took this long for me to figure that out and live it.
Now I’m on the third stage of achievement. Without the benefit of hindsight, I don’t have a handy label for it, but I can describe what it feels like: learning how to generate self-replenishing energy to push the first and second stages of achievement into overdrive. This didn’t become apparent to me until I decided to re-live 2005 again and started blogging as prolifically as I could. Once I saw the pattern that was making me happy, it clicked into place.
Here is the process for my third-stage achievement:
- Happy Bubble Time — I’m taking the time to investigate ideas as they come to me, and writing about them in the blog or process journals. This is an essential part of my personality, and it gives rise to multiple projects. It also gives me something to write about.
- Following my Gut — This is about listening to myself and my values. To use writing as an example, I am writing in a way that works for me and am less concerned if the topics are of interest to a general audience. For the past several years I’d been constrained by an imagined need to “be more accessible”. As a result, I didn’t write as much or as freely. A small concession I’ve made is letting articles sit for a bit and proofreading them the next day, which helps smooth out the language.
- Learning to Make Tangible Goods — Although I don’t like thinking about the dozens of years that have slipped by me while figuring this out, I’ve been a frustrated “maker/creator/craftsman” since I was 9. I never quite fit in one field or industry, and in hindsight I’ve met relatively few people who were excited about the very act of making something new at a challenging level of excellence that also could DO it. Today, at the ripe old age of 44, I’m finally overcoming this frustration and am learning new skills.
- Sharing My Interests — I’m also no longer worried about “audience” on the website, and write about what’s interesting to me. I write to report what I’ve done, and this dialogue with myself helps understand what I’m doing more deeply. The sharing is also a way of making connections with people that like what I’m doing; if people can’t see what you’re doing, then they don’t know you’re doing it!
The overall pattern, I think, is this:
The creation a cycle of discovery, assessment, making, and sharing in pursuit of personal excellence.
My own particular vision of excellence is the will to pursue designs, insights, processes, and inventions that solve problems that hold us back. To be able to create, produce, and supply these inventions instead of just talking about them. To be smart and clever enough to see opportunities that have been overlooked. To be discerning, skilled, and humble enough to pursue the highest level of craft from the true masters.
This is an enormous expansion, of course, from “maker of functional stationery”. I don’t know how this will affect fans of the blog, but I do know that so far it has increased my own momentum. The central theme of this website, I now realize, is really about sharing the energy of pursuing and creating excellent stuff.
But what about preventing a huge backlog of projects from rising up and crushing my spirit? I think the essential message of productivity systems like Getting Things Done is often overlooked. The point of GTD, as I understand it, is to destress about what we’re doing; the particular problem that is solved is keeping track of everything so you don’t have anxiety about your responsibilities. I’ve redefined my responsibilities, which is possible because I’m a girlfriend-less hermit that works out of my basement as a freelanceer in a small condominium driving a 12-yo car. So long as I’m seeing something produced on a regular basis, I’m feeling good. Learning to manage continuity of many projects of uncertain ripeness is the approach I’m taking. Instead of running an office or a production line, I’m learning to cultivate my tasks like a farmer managing several different kinds of fruit orchards. The design/freelance side is sort of like a cider house right now, and the stationery business is kind of like a farm stand selling preserves. However, it’s the maintenance of the orchards that makes these two businesses possible in the first place, providing good ideas to convert into tangible goods. These ideas deserve their own series of articles, so I’ll table this discussion for now.
What’s Coming Up
That’s about it for this month. For the coming month, it’s continuing to indulge in Happy Bubble Time and sharing the energy I get from it. There are a few backburnered projects that I want to address, though I’m not sure if I’ll get to them:
- Web site theme update. It’s still ongoing slowly. I want to add some banner areas that go to the popular content on the website. Also, I want to make the message of “energy from pursuit of excellence” into something clearer and obvious, so people know what to expect when they arrive here!
- More Printable CEO instructions and photospreads, in their own section of the website.
- Need new business cards!
- Bring back descriptions of my current skill offerings, and really define some specific products to bundle those offerings up. For example, polishing up my simple webpage templates and creating some demo interactive engines with Max, Unity, and other libraries would be good for getting back into high-end interactive design. I’m thinking of taking a page from the UX community and defining my own set of best practices to go with.
I’m feeling pretty good about the progress I’m making. Time to sleep!