Five Things On My Mind

I am putting myself into “hermit mode” again, which consists of following this schedule:

  • In the daytime, do social / communication / email things for about eight hours.
  • Sleep for four hours, wake up at around midnight.
  • Do project work in the dead of the night, for about eight hours, music blaring
  • Sleep for four hours, wake up around noon.

It’s a crazy schedule, but I find that in times when I need to be productive, separating “project time” from “social time” with a nice chunk of sleep seems to help. Working when everyone else is asleep also cuts down on distractions.

Another way of putting it: I’m extroverted during the day, and introverted at night. It’s not great when I have client meetings, but lately I haven’t had too many of those, so this week I’m entering the Hermit Zone.

Before I disappear into the Zone and start blasting the music, there’s just a few things on my mind that I have to put out there. They’re sort of related to the mood that has put me into hermit mode in the first place.

1. If conforming to structure is hard, maybe I shouldn’t worry about it. — There are a lot of expectations and pressures to be on a “normal” schedule…but maybe that doesn’t apply to me right now. It would be different if I were running a company or on a project team, but right now I’m not (not really, anyway). So why not embrace it?

2. I can’t plan the future, so I’ll make it instead and see how it comes out. — In an odd confluence of inputs, I mentally mashed-up the rants of Jason Fried regarding the uselessness of functional specs with those of Douglas Adams; Adams writes about the amusing qualities of how the useless and the trivial have large impacts on our lives. It goes something like this: for most of my life, I’ve assumed that with enough planning, knowledge, experience, and foresight, I could get things done the way I was “supposed” to. After doing that interview on mcville, I marvelled how everything fit together so well. And I knew that was a lie. In hindsight everything fits because that’s just the way it happened to happen; I have given it meaning in the context of what I’m doing now. Everything changed for the better once I started making instead of planning: making words, making friends, and making things for people to interact with.

That’s not to say that planning is useless, but I’m with Fried in his assessment of the functional spec as a political document. Doing the planning ahead of having a clear vision and a simple list of metrics for success is just useless busywork that wastes energy and time.

A corrollary thought: the notion that a committee of marketing executives can create a market strikes me as especially ludicrous. As with the functional spec, I think it is possible to create a market in the commodity sense. But for groundbreaking product, the market comes afterwards as the thing you’ve put out there gets used and adapted by actual people. Again, that is not to say that the ability to construct a market based on focus groups is a bad thing. It makes money, after all! What bugs me about it, though, is that it’s a wasteful process that doesn’t generate additional “value” in the world; it survives only because it skims an additional percentage off of what is already here, like money traders who make their living by exploiting differences in exchange rates.

I like the idea of making more value, not skimming my percentage off the top.

3. When I’m off the Internet, am I really fully present in the world? — I had this insight just a moment ago, as I am gearing up to start the day’s project work. I have been psyching myself up to be “focused” on projects, shutting off the desire to check up on various blogs and do some additional (um) writing. Ok, so I succumbed to the latter, but I realized as I was closing browser windows that I was constantly thinking about the Internet. The Internet is where I get my mental stimulation from these days, and it’s awfully hard to turn that off. Eeep!

I did two things that triggered this realization:

  • First, I went to the basketball court and shot some hoops. I moved my arms and legs and tried to put the big orange ball into the hoopy thing on the pole, and I marvelled at how much stuff was going on. Eye-hand coordination! Jumping! Ducks swimming by! Little kids with their fathers, laughing! Dogs! Clouds! The world was three-dimensional! I became aware of it for 30 minutes, before heading back to the home office.

  • Second, just a while ago I caught myself starting to open a browser window to check bloglines, but stopped myself. I closed my eyes, and for whatever reason became aware of the room I was in. I was in physical space! If I took the time to look around, and see what was around me, I was better grounded in my tasks. The computer screen ceased to become a conduit to a magical land of endless inspiration…it was just a construct of plastic and glass that made the illusion so accessible that I had no choice but to fall in. Perhaps that’s what was so compelling about SXSW: proof that it was more than illusion, that there really were real people on the other side.

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p>So a new trick for me this week: Stop staring at the screen like it’s a magic portal. Before starting work, ground myself in the real physical world, then get to it. Do something physical that reminds me that I am not just a floating head in cyberspace.

4. Do I really want people to understand me? Or is that a sign that I’m doing the right thing? — I constantly come across people “In Real Life” who listen to me rant about something personally meaningful, only to have them shake their head in a kind of amused befuddlement, dismissing what I have to say with one of those annoying “Okaaaay” responses. The people who respond to my obsessive ranting are the ones who tend to be a little nutty, so I like to hang out with them. They can keep up!

Most of the time this didn’t really bother me, though it did cause me to wonder if there was something wrong with me. More recently, I’ve embraced the possibility that there is something wrong with me, relative to the expectations of mainstream society, and I should just go with it. I’m not here to conform. Much.

At the same time, it would be nice to be “understood”, whatever that means. I’m blessed with friends who love and appreciate me, but at times that doesn’t really go as far as it should. Sometimes, I just want to say something to someone and have them “get” it. This is probably behind my desire to rebuild some kind of team. At the Startup Decisions panel at SXSW, one of the panelists said that one of the most critical decisions was to find someone to partner with who really “got” what you were trying to do, the idea being that it’s a lot easier to share the burden. And I guess not feeling understood is a burden, one that I try not to get too bitter about.

Is it unreasonable to think that having love, respect, and appreciation is not enough?

5. Is there enough time? — I’m in my 38th year of existence. I haven’t felt I’ve accomplished a whole lot in that span of time, but I also feel like I’m starting to (finally) gain some momentum. With the idea that I should “make” instead of “planning” the future on my mind, I think I have a better chance of doing something cool in the next couple of years. The question is, though, if I have been dilly-dallying about, and have screwed myself somehow.

One side of me thinks that this is useless negativity, but the “establishment conditioned” side of me still is strong with the ways of Making Plans. I got pretty good at making plans and estimating things, but you know what? I don’t think I like doing it, and looking at this past year I can see that I’ve been more successful going with my gut awareness than forcing myself along any particular path. That’s not to say that this is the right way to do things for everyone, but I suspect it’s what suits me.

There is a strong desire, however, to want some kind of guaranteed result. I can’t help it…it’s been strongly conditioned into me. Everything, in a sense, is a kind of risk and not guaranteed to happen, but there are exploitable systems that have a high probability of return. Getting a real job, for example, would yield predictable income, which could then be used to fund some projects.

There’s also the notion that putting in one’s dues will lead to higher levels of achievement. I look back on my 38 years and can see how much I didn’t do. Where’s that epic space trading game I wanted to do? Where’s my award-winning interactive design? If I had put more structure around my life, maybe I would have had those things, but I would have traded off the sense of personal authorship.

In Summary

I guess the general theme here is to “go with my gut, make things, be present in the world you are in.” I’ll see how that goes this week.