Being a beginner again and always

For my next role, I should be looking at a “lateral” move, or even better, a “higher level” role. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

A lot of people are asking about what I’m going to do when I get over to Scotland. Where am I going to work? Am I going to continue with Microsoft? Are there opportunities with other gaming companies? 

I don’t have anything lined up yet, I say. This is followed by some knowing nods and smiles. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding something is a common response. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t want to agree so easily. I feel comfortable with where I’m at professionally, and that’s my issue. The expectation of most is that I will go for the equivalent of a “lateral” move, or even better, get a “higher level” role for my next job. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

Menu sketch
Me writing out the code and design for an accordion menu I would implement on my university’s homepage using Actionscript in Flash back in 2000.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved art and design, and grew up learning about it through the lens of games. My interest in technology was born of game consoles, PC games, and remote control cars. How interfaces and images appeared and were arranged on a screen, and how input devices manipulated those images, was inextricably linked with how I created and what I wanted to create. I was also (and am still) a meticulously organized person, and I’ve always held tension between those often opposing forces: the creative who dives in not knowing where something will go on one side and the cartographer charting a detailed plan on the other.

The intersection of this making and organizing is where my career in tech began. Around the end of 1999, I started to notice how much visual creativity and storytelling were happening online, and I wanted to be a part of it. A friend of mine was making websites, so I joined him and suddenly I was building and (over) designing websites for academic departments at my university. I also set-up my own site (philnick.com), hosting it with a company called MediaTemple.net (solely because other web design artists were also using them). I was hooked by the combination of design and technology and freedom I had publishing on the web. Information taxonomy mixed with art! These were the days of figuring out how to bend table-based layouts to one’s will using single pixel spacers and CSS wizardry. The days of using FTP clients to publish a new version of WordPress and it’s MySQL back end. The days where Macromedia made Flash and the coolest sites had their menus and hero sections of homepages rendered with it. It was maddeningly hard to learn how to do it all and there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Scanned drawings for PhilNick.com
Some layout sketches for my original blog. I wanted a unique style so I hand drew the UI and then scanned them in and cut them into table layouts using Macromedia Fireworks.

I’ve previously written about this time as good hard work, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s the time in my life where I felt most creative, where I had full agency to learn, create and do. I knew there was no barrier other than time to making it happen. I was solving problems though experimentation, banging my head on the wall more often than not, and I was teaching and learning with others at the university technology department, and with like minded friends. My career at Microsoft owes itself to the momentum I gained during this time.

Early academic department website screenshots
Screenshots of some early departmental website designs I did. Bad by today’s standards but back then the web wasn’t as pretty as it is today.

I’ve never lost that love of creating and publishing work, and helping and supporting others use technology to create themselves. However, I’ve gotten further away from it as my career has progressed. Up until recently, It had been a long time since I was last making, designing and creating things with technology. My recent role (with Minecraft) has gotten me into making again, and non-coincidentally I’ve also jumped back into sharing my writing and illustrating online as a committed side-gig. It’s been amazing how it’s fueled all other aspects of my life and made me a better dad and a husband. The energy is flowing in the right direction, and I want it to stay that way.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”

Albert Einstein

So what do I want to do for work next? I’m not sure but I know what I don’t want to do. Instead of looking for a job that’s lateral or “higher level”, I’m looking for something that will allow me learn something new. I’d like to go back to the beginning, to actually being a beginner again and having to figure something out from scratch. I’d like to learn how to design and implement new user interfaces, bring stories to life using narrative, illustration, music and some code, or create a new way for creative collaboration and sharing. I’d like to do it both for income as well as incorporate it in projects with my kids and their education. I’d like to do it with others, in a way that’s not crazy.

I’m not sure that this will lead to in terms of my next role, salary, etc. It could certainly lead to less money. It will almost certainly lead to some raised eyebrows. I know it will lead to a lot of new learning, new connections and great experience.

Beginning again might not make sense to most, but it makes sense to me. I can only hope it’s one of many more.

What I learned last week (#18)

Learned last week: re-learning to code is for me, places for Americans to travel, and how to make my drawings come to life.

  • A book excerpt I appreciated: “While mankind is very intelligent in relation to other species, we have the intelligence of moss growing on a rock compared to nature as a whole.” – from Ray Dalio’s Principles.
  • I want to (re)learn how to code (at least enough to make a few utilities): I have some ideas on little things I’d like to build to make my journaling/note taking/writing easier and I want to do some things on my blog. I used to do light coding as a web designer (JavaScript, Flash/Actionscript, and some ASP.NET). This post, Ten Lessons I Learned While Teaching Myself to Code, and my current reading of Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, is pushing me to dive back in.
  • Some ideas on where to travel: I want to do a year travel with the kids, or perhaps living in a few different places, and reading this list gave me some ideas on how to think about it. France is definitely on the list.
  • A cool app for animating your own art: I’m grateful to have been turned on to the PuppetMaster app last week, and just like that we have a project for spring break this week: drawing the animated story of… (to be continued)
  • A great purchase that I rediscovered: I write a lot and am a fan of fountain pens (one of many rabbit holes I like to follow). I’ve collected a few pens over the past couple years, and I recently picked up my TWISBI Vac700 and remembered why it’s king: filling is easy, the extra-fine nib is superb and it’s got a heft to it that just feels right.

Afraid in the best way possible

Yes, I am afraid of moving, but in the best way possible. Rather than being afraid of giving up what I have, I’m more fearful of missing an opportunity, that I might give up what I know I could have more of.

We are about 4 months away from being in full family transition, setting sail for Scotland from the U.S.A. There is a lot up in the air and the only thing that is certain is that this will be a moment of unmooring for us all. Many people have asked me how I feel about it. “Am I scared of moving?” they ask, “I would be.”

I’ve come to the realization that for me, it’s the exact opposite. I am afraid, but I am most afraid of not doing it. Doing it fully. I am afraid that I am not able to conquer the fears that have been both a great builder of strength and a great liability to me up to this point in my life. Rather than feel like I’m giving up what I have, I’m more fearful of missing an opportunity, that I might give up what I know I could have more of. I’m not talking about stuff, but rather, time, experiences, learning. I’m afraid of not knowing what else is out there. Afraid of succeeding. This fear of discovery and realization is new though. For most of my life, I didn’t want to do anything unsettling.

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Jack Canfield

Like most commonly held fears, I can trace most of mine back to childhood experience. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my sister and I went through multiple family configurations and many different schools from grade 2 through college. We moved with my Mom to a different state at one point (Washington) and spent the school year there and visited my Dad during school breaks. Of course, throughout this I felt like I had no control of my situation. I had to make new friends continuously and what I wanted most was to fit in, to have a “regular” home, and I wanted my Dad back. Being slightly overweight, short, wearing glasses and being obsessed with video games meant I was destined for my fair share of bullying and ridicule. Junior high was hard. High school was harder. Eventually, I figured it out. The lack of emotional stability at home and the desire to be part of the tribe of my peers made me very adaptable and it drew me to seek to create my own order (I’m an organizer and communicator by trade, huh!). It also made me amenable to people of all sorts, and taught me that making friendships is a lot easier if you are open minded and a good listener.

As a result of these experiences, my life has since been defined as one seeking stability and maintaining the status-quo. I am very lucky to have all of the comforts and success that I have, but I can see ways that my fear of instability and of not fitting in have held me back in my personal and professional life, and it’s time for me to learn to set them aside.

I’m trying to shift my stance towards fear and approach decisions differently now. I want to do more things that give me that sense of fear, not less. I’m trying to not to look at the cost of my fears coming true, but rather the cost of them not coming true. Said another way, what likely opportunity (versus unlikely risk) am I missing out on by giving fear the final say in a decision?

I’ll give some examples of fears that I’m wrestling with related to our move to Scotland this summer, and how I’m thinking about them in an inverse way than many others in my life seem to be.

Here are three of my big fears with the move:

  1. Moving to Scotland will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities
  2. Moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained
  3. Moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially

Note that I didn’t say they were rational fears! But, what if I looked at them differently, like this:

  1. NOT Moving to Scotland will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities
  2. NOT Moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained
  3. NOT Moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially

Is there truth here? Is it just as likely, if not more, that this alternative will happen? I think so. Here is how I think about it:

  1. Not moving will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities: I dread that Vivian and Sam will end up having awful experiences in school, either with crap teachers, school bullies, or infinite other cruelties, but that can (and will inevitably) happen anywhere. We live in a great school district in the US with all the advantages that implies, but I know that the first-hand experience with a new culture, seeing kids and people that are different than them, and building friendships from scratch will pay off more in the long run than anything they will learn in school.
     
  2. Not moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained: Being in a relationship is something you have to constantly do, it needs to be active and provide sustenance to both people involved. This means different things for different people, but for us, travel and new experiences are important. Following this dream generates energy that forges new bonds. Not following through with a move would keep things comfortable, perfect conditions for things to atrophy. Our relationship will surely be tested throughout this next chapter, and that’s exactly the point. 
     
  3. Not moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially: I’m going to set aside the imagined/real impact of Brexit for the moment on this one. If I were to believe that I am better off to stick with what I have now, I must believe three things. The first is that I need to maintain my current salary to be happy. The second is that I can reach my full potential in what I do now. And third is that equally great opportunities (or likely even greater) don’t exist or aren’t attainable in myriad forms and places that I have yet to discover. I choose to believe none of it.

Looking at where my fears come from, how they’ve both benefited me and held me back, and the worst-case of them coming true vs potential upside of them not, is a practice I hope to revisit regularly when making big decisions.

Yes, I am afraid of moving, but in the best way possible. Fear will always be present, and I choose to embrace it as an ally, a compass that is telling me something interesting is happening, and look for the opportunity behind it. Try it and you might be surprised what you see.

Then there was yes

Exploring why and how we decided turn “someday we’ll do this” into today.

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

Benjamin Disraeli Former prime minister of the United Kingdom

In about six months we are moving our family from our home in Seattle across the ocean to Scotland. It’s a pretty big life change. That being said, I want to try to attempt to explain why we’re doing this, and, I’ll let you know right now, this explanation might be a letdown. Just when I think I have a pretty solid handle on the reasons, they turn into marbles on an uneven table. My wife Kav and I have been talking about this for awhile, but it was always a “someday we should…” conversation. Then something shifted, but I’m not quite sure how or why, it’s still kind of a mystery.

A few years ago, I would have found it unlikely to know I would be moving out of the country. I’ve always lived in the US. Although I’ve moved houses and I moved schools a bunch as a kid, I’ve really only lived in two states: Washington and Wyoming. I’ve worked at Microsoft for almost 13 years. Not only that, but I’ve been working in gaming for 6 years, and my latest assignment is with Minecraft. I am LITERALLY doing what I dreamed of doing as a kid, making video games. And now I’m saying the fact I have my dream job isn’t as important as this opportunity. This strikes me as a profound leap, and I want to know how to to re-create it, mass produce it (in pill form preferably), and do it more.

But before I fumble around explaining how I got to my yes on the decision, let me try explain why we want to to do this.

First off, we’re making the big move by choice, independent of a job offer or citizenship concerns or any other forcing factor. Both my wife and I feel strongly that it’s time for a change and we want to raise our kids closer to family (or at least a part of it). This is what we say outwardly at least. It’s definitely more complicated than that, but those are the easy reasons to explain. There are plenty more.

We’re moving so that our kids will know (some) of their family more and so that we’ll have a support network while raising our kids. We’re moving for all the new connections to people, in work and in school and in life, that we’ll all make. We’re moving so we can experience a new country and way of life, and so we can go through a big project (and the challenges we’ll face along the way) together, as a family. We’re moving because there are more guns than people in the US. We’re moving so we can have weekends away in Paris (and so I can go on excursions to Belgium for beer…shh, don’t tell Kav). We’re moving to shake things up and ensure we don’t get too comfortable. We’re moving because “we’d like to someday” could very well never happen, and it certainly won’t unless we act.

The magnitude of the shift that this will make in all of our lives cannot be understated, which is ultimately the point (and also the source of our fears).

What’s so difficult to explain, and what I’d like to articulate in some beautiful way so that others can benefit, is what pushed us over the edge to make the decision. What made us both get to the point where we like, “Yup, let’s get rid of our new house right next to a great school in one of the most beautiful places in the planet and our six figure salary and beautiful cars and stock options and crazy comfortable life and shake the dice and start over with NO STUFF doing something else that probably isn’t going to be worse and potentially could be AMAZING and maybe never come back”?

At the end of all the worries, I realized (and maybe Kav has know this all along), that the likely upside is much greater than the unlikely downside.

The decision seems obvious to me now but how’d I get to this point? Kav has already touched on her thoughts. For me, I think the factors that led me to feeling so comfortable with it come down to:

  • Simplifying my life and trying to reduce material needs/desires
  • Carefully curating the inputs I pay attention to (feeds, screen time, friends, books, etc)
  • Being more present with my kids and wife, and (trying to) be as intentional and tuned-in as I can in every moment

I wasn’t expecting this. Kav and I argued over her desire to move and my interpretation of her reasons, although I always knew I wanted to live in another country eventually, I didn’t think I wanted to do it this soon. Now it’s hard to imagine why I was opposed.

I’d like to think that by focusing on the seemingly small and simple things, I was receptive and open to a big decision as it came around.

At first there was a no, and then there was a yes.

To uproot or not to uproot?

That is the question.

Oh man, the weight of decisions as a parent can’t be underestimated.  I’ve always been fairly thoughtful and composed in any big decisions, but ADDING kids to the mix adds a hefty kettle bell to my arms.

Life in America right now (apart from the utter political craziness we are part of) is pretty awesome day to day!  #blessed #lucky #surreal We are probably middle class textbook – totally weird when you look in from the outside.  Married, Kids (one of each), 4 bedroom home, 2 cars….. healthy, happy.  So why change that?

A ton of reasons, all with different weight.  And whilst there is no obvious reason to uproot, all of our personal reasons leave us with an instinctual feeling that this is the way forward for our family.  And we are SO LUCKY that we are ABLE to make such a decision, and plan such a move.

So here goes our big family move from America to Scotland, where we will open new doors, new experiences, new adventures….. and lots of laughing as Nick uses his American words, and the Scottish take the piss! 🙂  Don’t worry babe, I’ve got your back (sometimes)!

*A few things the Scottish will find funny – Semi, Glasgow…..* more later in its own dedicated article!

Wife here!

I’m Kav.  I’m 41 years old, Wife of my soulmate Nick, and Mama to our 2 beautiful kids.  I was born in Trinidad, raised mostly in Scotland, and live in the greater Seattle area of the USA.

My husband loves to write.  I love to think, and then occasionally blurt out a whole load of stuff in one big mass.  We are about to uproot the family and move to the UK from America so finding a constructive way to put it all down, organize our thoughts well and capture all of our excitement, fears and hesitations ALONG the way MAKES SENSE.

I join my husband on this writing journey 🙂  

Maybe one day, our kids will read this.  And instead of being mad of us for making such big changes in their lives, they might appreciate the thought and emotion that went into our decisions.

We love you Vivian and Sam.  x