September 17, 2013

It’s a Hard Knock Lyfe

So as 2013 stumbles along, I've been doing a lot of self-reflection and collating my experiences into meaningful pieces of advice I can pass on to others. This entry is basically the result of that.

Full disclosure: I've written this entry multiple times because Real Life keeps happening to me thus the "top five" keep shifting. I'm posting this entry at last because some of these things have stayed constant enough, and because I'm happy enough with this list to let this go. In fact...

1. Good enough is probably perfect.

This is something I think anyone whose job has even a modicum of creative process associated with it ends up running into. I know I'm a pretty detail-oriented person and I want something done right as much as I want it completed. Alas, life isn't always about what you want. If something needs to be done, it needs to be done and often on someone else's schedule.

At some point, you have to stop agonizing and analyzing and editing whatever you've created -- code, prose, whatever -- and send it out there into the world. Chances are if, in the moment, you were "happy enough" with it, you'll be exceedingly happy with it later on. You might even surprise your later self with how clever Past You was!

I'll give an example: when I reread short stories and blog posts I wrote a couple months ago, I'm always stunned by how good some are. Whether it's the understated beauty of a Captain America fanfic, or the turn of phrase I used to describe a situation proving to be particularly inspired, it's amazing how satisfied I am with my own work once I manage to gain some perspective with time.

I think we tend to expect 100% in the moment, searching for the perfect syntax in every single line. The problem is, 75% acceptable (the "good enough" line, in my mind) is often 100% acceptable outside of the deeply stressful immediate situation.

Be more acutely aware of when the diminishing marginal return thresholds gets inefficient, and pull back. Or, in layman's terms: stop when it's "good enough" -- you can edit later.

2. Life is a series of Iron Triangles.

I remember taking an Operations Management class back in university that introduced the idea of the iron triangle to me. In brief: in production, you can control Cost of Production, Quality of the Product, and Time to Produce. However, you can't optimize for all three at once; you only get two.

Real Life is pretty crummy; you always only get two. I know for me, my triangle was: Work, Gym, Leisure Time (Friends, Crafts projects, Blogging). Some days it was Work, Social Life, Sleep. Some weeks it was Work, Work, Gym. Either way, the tradeoff game is in full force. If I wanted to be able to pay rent as well as be fit, I just didn't have time for Leisure activities. I remember I went weeks without seeing friends before I realized what was happening. I also remember not working out at all in the week leading up to a Big Bang deadline.

Still, one of the things that I remember being crazy hard to adjust to was work literally taking up half or more of my waking hours. That freedom I had for four years, through university, was gone. No longer did homework and class total less than half my waking hours, with the rest devoted to personal pursuits -- or, even more lamentably, no longer could I enjoy weekly 3-day weekends; while Real Life really doesn’t have homework, there’s always a to-do list, one that never seems to shrink properly, and 3-day weekends are a pipedream at best.

It’s also an attitude shift; I know I’ve blogged about this before, but New York is a city that’ll make introverts of even the most extroverted people. There’s simply too much going on all the time, and too many people forced to vie for the same air and space and resources. At least, on my university campus, that was not the case; Indiana is a sprawling, spacious campus in the countryside. Environmental factors change your triangle’s composition by changing your incentives; if you find yourself less and less able to deal with other people in your free time, you’re less likely to choose that corner of the triangle as a non-negotiable.

If you want a better work/life balance, you’re going to have to draw out your triangle (or pentagon or whatever crazy shape/graph you pick) and ask yourself what’s non-negotiable, and where is the trade-off line. For me, I gave myself 3 days a week to pick "leisure" over "gym" -- whether that was drinks or knitting-and-movie nights, or simply sleeping early. Visualizing my waking hours this way helped me better understand where my time was going and why. It also helped me identify where my motivations fell and if that was something I was ok with.

3. Say ‘yes’ smarter.

I remember being an overextended undergrad and having various mentors and student leaders warn me against saying no too infrequently. At the same time, I remember my professors and mentors urging me to find/make opportunities that I should say YES to. Sometimes these are obvious moments (your Fearless Leader asks you directly to step up and into a role you’re confident you’re ready for) but other times….not so much. Timing really is everything, I’ve learned: from asking for a raise to asking for a date, timing makes a huge difference in the outcome.

Saying yes smarter means not always saying yes but not always saying no either. It means letting your default response be the improviser’s standard, "Yes, and...." but also recognizing that a negative response isn’t the end of the world. I know that the moments in my life I regretted most were the ones where I said NO too soon. I should have said yes more often, and allowed myself to explore and adventure and grow. And, by contrast, saying YES even when the situation was vaguely terrifying led to some really amazing opportunities for me: I moved to New York, I became a Community Manager, I got WinterBash, I delivered a speech to a room of a thousand female engineers in India.

A good friend of mine once told me, "Anything that scares you is worth doing." Which leads into my next point:

4. Bravery is its own reward.

I lost sight of this somewhere between college and Real Life, but it’s a life lesson that’s reared its ugly head repeatedly, which probably means I need to shut up and pay attention.

Bravery comes in a lot of different forms, whether it’s the aforementioned asking for a raise, asking for a date, or even simply asking for respect. Bravery means doing the right thing even when it’s hard -- especially when it’s hard! -- because it’s the right thing to do. Bravery means speaking your mind even when it’s costly, either because of the fallout from what you have to say or because you’re naturally shy. Bravery means taking a hard look at yourself and seeing the flaws but also seeing the gifts. Bravery means recognizing weakness and strength in both yourself and others.

Bravery means walking into the unknown and not losing sight of your purpose. It’s willingly stepping off the edge of the (metaphorical) cliff and trusting the landing won’t be an onomatopoeia bubble from a comic book.

Why is bravery important? Lots of reasons. Beyond the usual "fortune favors the bold" platitudes, bravery means living life on your terms. Without regrets. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I can see major changes in my life coming my way. It’s put a lot of things in perspective for me, not the least of which being: regret is useless. I’d rather have closure -- or at least exposure, especially of the truth -- rather than regret. I’d rather be blunt and plainspoken and straightforward, because playing games and avoidance never did me any favors in the past. I’d rather take a leap than allow myself to drown in apathy.

Regret does no one any good. Life is for living, and being brave makes that possible. Sure, taking the risks means the immediate pain is sharper and more intense, but it passes so much faster.

So many people have no capacity to be brave, because to be so means truly owning who you are and what you have to offer. I think a lot of us are scared, and that’s ok! Fear is natural and important. But fear can’t be the driving force of your life. You have to make decisions, you have to walk the path you choose for yourself. Why fill that path with "What if" questions? Fill it with "I did" statements, instead.

Finally: when you’re brave, you have nothing to apologize for when so-called "haters" come at you. There is no shame in living life on your terms.

5. Always trust your instincts.

If you’ve never been led astray by your (metaphorical or literal) gut before, don’t stop listening to it when things get tough. Intuition goes a long way, and the human mind is an amazingly complex instrument. If your instincts are saying XYZ but all your advisors are saying P, Q, or R, listen closely to your instincts. It’s possible you’re seeing more than you consciously realize: body language, silenced conversations, expressions on peoples’ faces, gestures.

I spent months second-guessing all of my instincts at every turn, and with 20/20 hindsight I saw that I’d missed opportunities by not trusting myself. My insecurities manifested in a deep mistrust of the very things that had gotten me so far. I should have been braver (hence the former point) and silenced the rationalizing voice in my head; everything can look logical if one wants it to.

However, I’d like to expand this point to include a corollary: If the unanimous response is X, don’t keep insisting on Y. I’ll give an example: if the unanimous response to your description of your job is, "Wow, that sounds horrible," you can’t keep insisting it’s an amazing job unless you start changing how you talk about it. Either it really is a horrible job (and you’re deluding yourself, which is 100% possible) or you’re talking about it badly. I’ve seen both and the short version is: chances are the unanimous response has the right of it.

If you have friends you feel like you can actually trust and rely on, listen to them. Your friends care about you, and just because ANY human relationship is more layered than simple observation can detect doesn’t mean their opinions are invalid. If they all say your Significant Other is uncouth, it might be time to reconsider their behavior when you’re not around or paying attention.

Unanimous opinions are, in my experience, completely correct. Chances are you’re missing something glaringly obvious for one reason or another: willful blindness, you’re too close to the situation, lack of opportunity to see it, or perhaps you’re being straight-up gaslit. Either way, a unanimous opinion carries far more weight than any other; after all, if these are trustworthy friends, they shouldn’t all respond the same without good reason.


I mentioned earlier that I’ve written this entry over and over. I think the most important part is the last point, which has stayed pretty static through revisions. Trusting my instincts is the single thing I wish I could tell my one-year-ago self. Certainly I wish someone besides experience had told me that instead of the gamut of advice I did receive. Not all the advice was useless, though most of it was well-intentioned, but the one thing I needed to hear wasn’t ever said.

Then again, knowing how to ask the right question is an art unto itself. I mentioned earlier: hindsight is 20/20. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know.

Since this list did keep changing, it’s possible (read: likely) there will be a follow-up post with more lessons learned.

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