Create a story, join a story, tell a story?

As I have been thinking about and working on "what's next" for me professionally, a theme has emerged around storytelling. Despite the fairly technical nature of my work to date, storytelling is a concept and a practice that has consistently been woven into the challenges and projects I take on. And as I ponder the future, it's been useful to see how each possibility fits (or doesn't fit) with that theme too.

Here are some of the general possibilities I'm considering through that lens:

Create a new story. Found a company. Make something new. Write actual stories or books.

Tell other people's stories. Journalism. Publishing. Podcasting. Interviews. Investigations.

Be a part of someone else's story. For a while, anyway. Get another job at an organization I believe in. Help lead an organization or team through a time of transformation. Give my time and talents to a cause I am excited about.

Work on story-telling tools used by others. Launch a product or service. Build or contribute to software. Do consulting or freelance work.

Learn from the stories already out there. Read books and articles, listen to podcasts. Catch up with friends and colleagues. Browse the aisles of the library. Wander in the woods. Explore new places.

I'm early in my own process of discernment, but I'm settling on one point of clarity: I may be retiring from doing "just one thing." Recalling the different modes of living out my multipotentialite self, I think it's time to shift away from the Group Hug approach ("having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side") and instead shift to the Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work"). Embracing my multiple passions and a skillset that spans many different kinds of roles and industries will, I think, mean honoring the time and focus each one deserves, instead of largely relegating everything except a narrowly focused job or project to what I can get done in my spare time. Easier said than done.

I've also had a hard time describing this time of transition to others in any kind of concise or confident way. As one person said, I'm not conforming to normative standards for professional/life changes. It's great to acknowledge that, but still makes for awkward light conversation.

Helpfully, I recently encountered Scott Berkun's article, Changing your life is not a (mid-life) crisis, and it's full of good stuff, including:

I imagine for myself a lifetime of changes initiated by me. I know I’m too curious, and life is too short, to follow the conventional footsteps that everyone is quick to defend despite how miserable they seem in the following. We use the phrase “life long learner” but it’s corny and shallow, suggesting people who quietly take courses or read books after college as if the essence of life were merely a hobby. We need a term for life long growers, people who continue to examine and explore their own potentials and passions, making new and bigger bets as they change throughout life.

A hard thing about this time is resisting the temptation to make safe bets that I know I can win. I've been there and done that, and even when I've taken risks or tried new things that others were uncertain about, I've had an almost embarrassingly good run of professional success as a result. So now I'd like to take some risks make some bold moves and step further outside my comfort zone along the way. I want to create, or tell, or be a part of a story that has some good twists and turns.

Let's see where this dimly lit path (that may not be a path at all) goes, shall we?

Goodbye and thank you, Automattic

After more than 5.5 years at Automattic, I recently decided that I am ready for something different, and today is my last day at the company.

The things about Automattic that excited and impressed me when I first joined in 2014 still excite and impress me today. The mission to democratize publishing and help people to better tell their stories. The pioneering of a distributed model for hundreds of people to work well together. The way even small improvements in a few lines of code could affect millions of websites. The focus on transparency and excellence in communication. Working with kind people from all over the world in a constant flurry of collaboration and creativity.

YOLO

I'm proud of the contributions I made in that time, and I know that I got to work on some of the most interesting projects of my professional life so far.

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An adoption story

It was a sunny Monday morning in August and there we were, standing in the delivery room at the hospital, waiting for a baby girl to be born.

That we were invited by our birth mother to be present for the birth was beyond anything we had hoped for when we first started exploring adoption. We shouldn't have been surprised, though; our birth mother had shown an amazing spirit of generosity toward us throughout her pregnancy and since we'd first met, including us in doctor visits, health updates, name discussions and more. We were continuously touched and honored that she brought us into those experiences even though it might have been easier not to. She was ever focused on what would be best for this child, determined to set her up for the best possible life that we could collectively give her. It was, and is, amazing.

When we had gotten the call a few months earlier that there was a pregnant birth mother interested in meeting us, we were very excited, and very scared. We knew that we had so much to offer a child as parents, but the stakes felt so high for that first in-person conversation, which was to take place over a casual meal at a restaurant. We were fortunate to be joined and guided by a counselor from the agency we were working with, and she was helping both us and the birth mother to create a safe space and set expectations. But as we sat down at the restaurant table to wait we were nervous and anxious all the same.

It was one of many blessings in our story that when the woman who would be our daughter’s birth mother arrived, we connected with her quickly and much of our nervousness melted away. We all talked about our lives and stories that had brought us to this point. We talked frankly of our hopes and fears in thinking about adoption. And we laughed together at the various ways that my and Kelly’s background and interests seemed to intersect so well with the birth mother’s passions. All of the sudden we could really picture this thing actually happening; there was a specific person who might choose us to be the parents of a specific baby!

Our agency had cautioned us against getting our hopes up. "Be excited, but also protect yourselves” was a theme throughout the process of preparing for adoption. We could learn as much about a potential plan as we wanted, but as a birth mother is able to change her mind at any point before signing the paperwork, we had to know that plans could change. We didn’t have a baby shower or decorate a nursery in the same way others might have because we didn’t know for sure if and when we would be becoming parents. We could tell our friends and employers what we thought might happen, but we didn’t know for sure.

Still, when we got the call a few days after the meeting at the restaurant that the birth mother had chosen us, we were ecstatic. We both had a really good feeling about it and we felt that we were at a new and special phase that was changing our lives forever. We set up a call with the birth mother to celebrate this milestone and to offer our gratitude. I can only imagine all of the things she was feeling and wrestling with at that time, but in that conversation it seemed like we all felt clear and grateful to be moving forward together.

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Podcast interview with me

I recently joined podcaster Dave Albert to talk about my adventures with entrepreneurship, what it was like to start, run and eventually wind down a technology business, what it's like to work for someone else, the joys and challenges of distributed work, and some of the cool stuff we're doing at Automattic. We covered a lot and it was fun to look back on all of those different parts of my professional life.

You can listen to the conversation on Dave's site, find it in your favorite podcast directory, or download a mirrored copy. Thanks, Dave, for the opportunity!

What can I contribute to journalism?

What can I contribute to journalism?

It's a question I’ve been asking for years now.

My questioning has taken a variety of forms, including:

  • writing and editing for my high school and college newspapers,
  • hosting a weekly podcast with analysis of the local news,
  • blogging as a media critic,
  • serving on the local daily paper’s editorial board,
  • having letters to the editor accepted in local and national publications,
  • working professionally to advise and support some of the biggest news publishers on the web,
  • helping to organize a three-day national conference for publishers, and
  • researching business models for local journalism.

I’ve been rewarded and challenged in all of those things, and in most cases I’ve been told that I’ve made a positive difference. And yet...I feel more concerned than ever about the waning appreciation for journalism and pursuit of the truth in modern society. I also feel more drawn than ever to trying to do something (else) about it.

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What I learned on my three-month sabbatical

As I conclude my three-month sabbatical from my work at Automattic, I'm taking a few moments to reflect on what I did in that time, what the sabbatical meant and what I've learned about myself along the way.

What did I do during my sabbatical?

Thanks for asking. It was a lovely mix of world travel, puttering around the house, exercising, tackling fun projects or day trips with my daughter, visiting with friends, reading books, tinkering with my personal web presence and software projects, grieving my mom's death and working on her estate, volunteering for local organizations and political causes I care about, cleaning out my home office, watching movies, listening to podcasts and napping. (I did less writing and structured exercising than I'd hoped to, but I felt creative and in motion in other ways that mostly made up for it.)

And I learned, observed and realized some things during that time:

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Sabbatical cometh

In a few weeks I'll be starting a three-month long sabbatical from my work at Automattic.

As a benefit provided by the company, it's pretty amazing. After every five years of employment, Automatticians are eligible to take a two or three month paid sabbatical to have a break from work, refresh and recharge. Several people (mostly used to academic versions of sabbatical) have understandably asked what expectations are placed on us during that time: research, writing, professional development? Nope, it's all about having a break.

For me personally it's a really neat opportunity, and one I haven't had before in this particular way. I started my first company when I was 19 and have pretty much been working full time ever since. Automattic has a generous and flexible time off policy but to have such a significant amount of time to pursue hobbies, personal projects and time with family and friends is really quite an amazing gift.

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Remembering Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn died over a year ago, but it doesn't feel too late to offer up some remembrances and tributes to the many ways he made a difference in my life, and the lives of so many others.

Quinn's novel Ishmael, and the lifetime of study, contemplation, research and thinking that led up to it, is at the center of his impact, at least for me. In critically examining the most fundamental stories our culture tells itself about our origins, our purpose and our place in the world, Ishmael and subsequent books from Quinn provided a new framework of understanding and exploration about how human society works, and could work.

It would be over-simplifying to say that it is a novel about environmentalism and sustainability, or uncovering cultural biases, or problematic religious traditions, or human potential and selfishness, although it is deeply about all of those things.  For me personally, reading it was a ground-shaking event in my college years, both because it named feelings, experiences, certainties and doubts I already had inside me, and then introduced a slew of new ones that I had to work through. That I am probably still working through. Whereas some novels have to invent a plot device that provides a dramatic twist at the end -- the ancient secret society DOES exist and the magical stone was hidden behind the painting all along! -- in Ishmael all of the secrets that are uncovered are real, buried in our cultural history and traditions, and the implications for revealing them are far reaching in how we live our lives.

As a person, Quinn was not a pushy evangelist for his ideas, nor did have a neatly packaged solution to offer up for the many challenges his books highlighted. Yes, he spent a lifetime trying (along with his wife Rennie) to make his ideas more clear, more accessible, more actionable through giving lectures, engaging with his readers and their questions, traveling to events and facilitating connections between those who were inspired by his work. But he wasn't selling, he wasn't anybody's savior, and his emphasis was always on improving our thinking and what might come from that.

I do not claim to have known Dan very well, but every time I talked with him or saw him in person, I experienced him as a grounded, authentic, kind, and intensely intelligent person. He had a contemplative nature, and I always appreciated that when asked a question about his work or his ideas, he would listen carefully and then pause for as long as he needed to provide a thoughtful, intentional answer. If he didn't know or couldn't form a useful response, he just said so. He was keenly aware of the power of words to persuade, convince, change minds and alter the course of history, and so he also seemed wary of uttering something that could be misinterpreted, re-appropriated or used to stuff his very not-mainstream ways of thinking into a comfortable mainstream box. He didn't have much patience for people who weren't trying to think for themselves or learn from past mistakes.

Because of the power of his books, many people wanted Dan to be their leader: the leader of their movement or their project or their personal journey through the world, or all of the above. I was always careful about not worshipping Dan himself or of not elevating his writing as sacred texts. But I guess I did help to start a group of people and a series of events centered around his work that jokingly referred to ourselves as a "cult of Ishmael" -- sorry, Dan. 🙂

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2018 Year in Review

I know, I know. It's the end of March and it feels a little late to be reflecting on a calendar year that has been retired for three months now. But I've gotten in the habit of doing this - see 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011 - and there is part of me that needs any small bit of closure that writing this post might bring.

Personal

If you had told me a few years ago that 2018 would be the year I lost my mom, I wouldn't have believed it. But the year was indeed consumed by continuing to accompany her through cancer treatment, worrying about her health a lot when I wasn't with her, and then finally saying goodbye to her in December.

I've written some about what that loss and grief has been like and so I won't repeat that all here. But there was little I did, planned, thought about or worked on that wasn't somehow affected by the constant low-level stress and anxiety of knowing a loved one was facing tougher and tougher odds for survival. I wrestled with finding the right balance of dropping everything to have meaningful and special experiences with mom while I could, and living my own life as fully as I could knowing that she found comfort and pride in hearing about our adventures and accomplishments as a family.

Those struggles and that grief brought out some of the best moments, too, when it comes to the love and support shown by friends, family and community. I still can't fully believe or begin to recount the incredible ways that people have reached out and, through gestures big and small, helped make life easier for us during the hardest times. I am so grateful for this and yet I've felt woefully incapable of expressing that gratitude while the fog of grief still swirls around me.

Parenting a preschooler continued to be an almost all-consuming experience. The year started with me entertaining her with puppet shows and craft activities and now she entertains us by breaking into song, dancing on her homemade stage, telling us the latest scuttlebutt from school and amusing us with endless creative scenarios and ideas for play. Helping a human develop, figure out the world, absorb language and deepen her emotions has been incredibly moving and wonderful. Exhausting! But wonderful.

I was thrilled to have a couple pieces of my writing included in publications beyond my own websites, and I still want to get back to doing more of that.

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