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.

“Work hard” is advice with a short shelf life

I’ve experienced the value of hard work and the danger of working too hard. My work must work for me, not the other way around.

I come across the advice that one needs to “work hard” frequently in my reading. There are other, more sinister variants that are common too, like “Work harder than everyone else”, “Outwork the competition”, or “Do what it takes”. This is commonly offered as advice on how to be successful, as a desired trait for a job applicant, or as something someone did that made them stand-out and reach heights that others aspire to. While I agree that a strong work ethic is an important quality to develop early in one’s life, I think it’s vastly overemphasized as a means to be “successful” and can lead many people astray.

Working hard is often regarded as a perpetually active state, a super power that must constantly be deployed like Spiderman swinging on his web in each encounter. If you are fortunate, this feels effortless, natural and empowering. The results can often lead to thrilling highs, the high of exceeding your bosses expectations, of exhausted praise from peers and of big rewards. Unfortunately, there is a more-common-than-not flip-side to this. Working hard is also synonymous with putting in more hours, being constantly connected, and working because you “should be” and are expected to if you are really passionate about your customers/your art/whatever. Striving to work hard can cause one to ignore boundaries, be one-dimensional, have a distorted view of self-worth and ultimately chase after results and expectations instead of accepting (and appreciating) reality.

How does someone parse the good hard work from bad hard work?

In the year 2000, I was just starting my bachelor of arts in marketing and internet studies (my 3rd major, after somehow failing to apply to the art program and giving computer science a go for a couple of quarters and hating it). It was then that I discovered the web, a new to organize information and design using new creative tools, and it was all I wanted to work on website design. I loved spending time doing this and did so almost any chance I could get. I was energized by the work, and I was by all definitions “working hard”. This was good hard work. My personal life and school life flourished.

Contrast that experience with another around the year 2009. I was working as a member of a remote team on things I didn’t really care about, but that I thought were important for me to know and experience. I was meeting with teams from the UK, France, Singapore and India and thus was pulling crazy hours to make it all work. I was paying my dues and getting good experience, or so I thought. I was by definition “working hard”. This was bad hard work. My professional life stagnated and my marriage fell apart soon after.

The key difference between these experiences is that when the good hard work was happening, I wasn’t thinking about the work. I was thinking a lot about (and doing) what I was truly interested in, I was doing work that was aligned with my goals at the time, I was challenged, I was having other experiences at the same time that gave me breaks (college is good for that), and it all fed and amplified my sense of self-worth. Contrast that with the bad hard work phase, in which I started to ignore side projects, didn’t look after myself physically, felt my marriage deteriorating, and was in many general adrift.

I’ve had a job since I can remember, starting with working in my Dad’s shop before it was legal, to a steady career in retail in high school and college. Even in those early years of learning the value of hard work (and having it suck at times), my overall feeling was one of pride and agency in my future. It was good hard work.

I’ve wasted plenty of time stubbornly working harder and ignoring the signals that something is amiss, that my priorities are off, that my work is working me and not the other way around. I bet a lot of other people are in the same boat.

I love and value hard work, but it’s advice with a short shelf-life. Once you learn the basics, working hard comes for free when you are doing what matters most. Knowing what matters most is the real challenge. That requires dedication, discipline and focus. Committing to that is what life is about and to do it requires that you truly work hard.

(By the way, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t do hard work)

How to help someone new (and also help yourself)

Helping new team members is one of the many things omitted from every job description. Here’s a few different ways to think about increasing empathy towards new team members and being more useful.

Much has been written about how important hiring is to a team and organization. Indeed, getting the right people into the right roles is probably the most important thing any team can do. But a close second is getting those new people into the mix, feeling welcomed and working effectively (also known as on-boarding). This second step is where a lot of teams struggle.

Sure, some new hires come in to their new role with a nice welcome email waiting, a package of team merchandise and helpful materials at their desk, and perhaps even a suggested 30-60-90 day plan for getting up to speed. But even if that’s done (and that’s a big if), it’s likely that the expectations and plans for the team to help them on-board have not been discussed at any length. As a result of this and many other factors, most people don’t prioritize enough time to help new hires, and assume that they will ask if they need something or that they are “drinking from the fire hose” and that it’s best to not overwhelm them at the start. This is a shame.

Helping new team members is one of the many things omitted from every job description. Here’s a few different ways to think about increasing empathy towards new team members and being more useful.

Act like you are in the middle of nowhere…

Have you noticed how the social norms for interacting with people when you are on a city sidewalk are totally different than when you are on a mountain trail? The expectation in the city is that it’s not rude to pay little attention to each other, and you are justified to not make eye contact or at most give a little smile or hello. But, if you are on a trail in the mountains and you encounter other hikers, it’s generally a rare occurrence and the expectation is reversed. The norm is to say hi, and more than likely you will be inclined (or approached) to chat about your dog, how’s it looking up ahead, or where you are from.

I think we often default to treating new team members like we’re passing on a city sidewalk, and they probably feel like they are out in the mountains, expecting the next person they see will make time to talk about what it’s like up ahead. Act like you are on the mountain with them.

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

Fred Rogers

Always give before asking or being asked…

Come bearing gifts. New team members don’t know what they need to know. Telling them you are “here to help” or to “let me know what I can do to help you once you get settled in” is not actually helpful. What is helpful is to put together a list of things you wished you knew when you started, introductions to other people that you think would be useful for them to know, or simply inviting them to lunch.

Be careful with “What do you need help with?”. That sounds helpful but it puts the onus on them. Instead, come to them with something they didn’t ask for that you think they might need. Doing some prep work for them is an easy way to build trust and it has very little downside (you needed to organize those notes anyway!).

Help them write their own stories…

With any new acquaintance there are a lot things you won’t know, which equals a lot of blanks to be filled in. Resist the urge to make up stories to fill these blanks. They are going to make mistakes, ask questions you thought were obvious, and also do a lot of things better than you. It’s going to be tempting to tell yourself stories that start with “They should be doing this…” or “They shouldn’t of done that…”. Anytime you recognize that coming to the surface, try to change the narrative.

The story that you want to write should be one that is about helping them by being generous and useful. The story about offering your expertise on a new issue or partnering with them to start a new project. The one where you improved your work because of something you learned from them. Change the framing from “They should do this…” to “I can help by…”.

“It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.”

Napoleon Hill

Welcoming a new team member is something to celebrate and enjoy, and on-boarding them should be a serious commitment for everyone on the team. Helping them succeed helps everyone, including yourself.

Read this before you go back to work

To me by me. A reminder before going back to work after time away.

Hey there,

You are about to go back to work after some time off. Maybe you just finished the weekend or you were off for a couple of weeks for the holidays, it doesn’t really matter. You’re going to need to get back in the groove of things and it’s highly likely you will feel overwhelm along the way because it’s happened before. Many times. In fact, it always happens.

See if this sounds familiar:

It’s Monday and you are looking forward to getting back to work so you can get back to your routine (alone time, finally!), contribute to something with like-minded people and do meaningful work. You get up and do your morning workout and are feeling pretty good. You sit down before looking at mail or other inputs and start making lists and getting organized so you can be intentional and focused right off the bat. Hell yes!

Seems all good but quickly that to-do list gets long and you start realizing how much stuff there is that was left hanging before you left or that you’ve committed to doing to meet your goals. Then, you look at your calendar and realize how many things shifted around, how many new things are there and, shit, what you actually scheduled that you need to prepare for and you need be “on” for a meeting an hour. Along with that, you start looking through all of the emails, messages, notifications up, and holy shit there is zero time to sort through it before you are sucked into the “Hey, how was the break?” catch-up conversation and you never got to really think about things before your first meeting starts.

This is the tipping point. Recognize that feeling of overwhelm? Say hi. It’s here just like we knew it would be. Now you have a choice.

One path is to dig in and grind. You can try to catch-up while in your meetings, not being fully present, get through your unread messages, not fully comprehending them, and get a partial list of your to-dos down on paper, which adds to the feeling of overwhelm. Now you’re still feeling behind, and you feel bad for how you showed up in that meeting. This is the path of resistance.

The other path is to realize that beginning again will be a bit messy, and focus on doing things well versus doing things fast. Focus on being present, only reading or working on what you can do with full attention, connecting with people and asking them what you can help with, be ok with a lot of unread stuff. Stay centered on your intention and don’t sacrifice quality. This is the path of acceptance.

Which path will you choose? Here is a checklist of things that have worked for you in the past and that you should pay attention to:

  1. Set the right conditions up-front. Ensure your good autopilot is turned-on prior to arrival. Eat healthy, sleep well, exercise and take care of yourself the day before.
  2. Be intentional. Set your intention for the day and week, keep perspective (practice zooming out), manage your to-do list and limit work in progress.
  3. Stay present. Focus on making the next 5 minutes rock. Don’t worry about the future, it will take care of itself.
  4. Fly high. Don’t give any mental space to negativity, blame, or criticism. People will forget the problems of the day but they will remember the way you handled them.
  5. Be gentle with yourself. The golden role applies in reverse. How you treat yourself is ultimately the way you will treat other people.

That’s it, now go get ’em. You’re going to do great.

Love,
-Yourself