Writing to be read

Last week I had a short humor piece published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency. It's been exciting not only because I adore McSweeney's as a publication and am honored to have a byline there, but also because it reminds me how fun it is to have my writing distributed for others to read. And, it's the second time it's happened that way in as many weeks.

I've had that excitement to some degree or another in a few other places: as a reporter and editor for my high school and college newspapers, as a writer for a satirical high school publication (called The Hierarchy of the Zucchini People, naturally), having some creative writing accepted into literary magazines, as an occasional columnist for my local city newspaper, and as a long-time blogger.

Still, I've been conflicted at times about calling myself a writer. And while I subscribe to the notion that one can be a thriving writer even if no one is reading your stuff, it does feel pretty nice when the universe affirms the value of something I've written.

Yes, this website is a largely built around my writing, my longest standing byline of them all. And some of my posts here have seen thousands of views in a day when they're linked from Hacker News or Reddit. But most of the time there are a few hundred visits per day at most, and many of those are to the same handful of technical articles; I don't publish here consistently enough to draw much of a regular readership. It's easy to think of it as "just a blog."

So If I'd posted the above humor piece on this site and linked to it from my Twitter account, I'm guessing it may have been seen by tens or maybe hundreds of people. I might have gotten a comment or two, maybe a few likes from my Twitter followers, and that would be fine.

By publishing on McSweeney's, it's been very different. My own tweet about the piece has been viewed over 13,000 times, the link clicked many hundreds of times. It's also been fun to see other people sharing and discussing the link on Twitter, and presumably on other platforms too.

Most commenters see it as "that new bit from McSweeney's" and not anything from me in particular, just as we tend to associate writing from The Onion or The New York Times with the publication more than the author. That's okay with me - I'm happy to contribute to what McSweeney's is and does in that way.

It also makes me appreciate publications that are open to submissions and that lift up writing done outside of the traditional publishing model (Longreads, part of the Automattic family, not least among them).

I plan to continue putting most of my public writing on my various personal websites. But I have lots of ideas for other publications and media that I could submit to and work with, and myriad notes on possible book topics, editorials, screenplays, journalism projects, short stories and more that I'd love to pursue. Seeing my writing being enjoyed by others certainly encourages me to spend more time on all that, and to live further into the part of my identity that is and probably always has been, "writer."

This Year's Garden

It's been over 10 years since I've had the time, space and inclination to have a real garden, so it's been a lot of fun to plant one this year.

The main focus was having an outdoor project my daughter could have some ownership of, and so I gave myself permission to go the easy route where I could: raised beds instead of tilling, a seed starter kit and grow light instead of crafting a setup out of individual parts, rain and the occasional hose instead of a rain barrel, and just a few different crops to manage: tomatoes, broccoli, cilantro, basil, and lettuce.

Here's what it looked like when we'd just moved the seedlings outside:

I also accepted early on that we'd be paying a small tax to the local bunnies, squirrels and birds as a part of encroaching on their yard space, forgoing any fences or chemicals to keep them away. We did have fun making some tin foil "scarecrows" that wave in the wind, and they seem to be working pretty well.

Fresh pesto is one of my favorite foods, so having basil to pick is a joy. Our daughter loves garden tomatoes and has previously mostly relied on the farmers market and the kindness of neighbors; it will be fun to see her harvest snacks and take pride knowing she was the one to plant them in the first place.

When I grow up, I want to be a generalist

Like many other kids, early in life I was confronted with questions about what I would be when I grew up. What one single area of study, profession and career would I build my life around? I gave the question all the weight it seemed to deserve because I didn't really know another option.

When it was time to pick a focus in college, I considered a lot of different paths; minister, writer, diplomat, teacher, political activist and computer scientist were among them. But I thought I needed to pick one. Technology was the area where I had most consistently thrived in what I did, so I made my choice.

For the almost twenty years that followed I thought I had my thing I would be when I grew up.  I was a tech guy running a tech business. I did a lot of different things as a part of that role, but there was a strong overarching theme I could easily explain in answer to, "what do you do?"

When I started working for someone else, I was sheepish about it at times. I liked the work itself but I was slow to adjust to the public identity of "tech employee," worrying that it was a step backward from "tech entrepreneur." And because employees are ultimately carrying out someone else's vision (no matter how much they share in it), I wondered if I had lost access to my own driving, anchoring passion for what I was doing with my life.

It didn't help that the popular narrative about how to be GREAT is to pick one thing and devote your life to it. One day when I was feeling particularly disoriented about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I encountered something along the lines of this tweet, presumably written in response to the question "how can I be amazing?"

You pick something you want to get good at and you devote every day of your life to it. That’s it. No secrets.

Oh dear. I had many things in life to be thankful for and happy about, but did I have the one thing I wanted to devote every day of my life to, professionally speaking?

It was neat that I'd run for political office, performed as a magician, taught college classes, organized conferences, hosted a podcast, learned to fly an airplane and run a company, but was enough enough?  Was it time to stop messing around with side projects, passing interests and skill-building that was tangential to my "one thing," whatever it was?

Was it time to really grow up?

Then I encountered Emilie Wapnick's book, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (affiliate link).

And thank goodness I did! As I read Emilie's words, I came to identify strongly as the type of person she calls a "multipotentialite," sometimes also referred to as a polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, or a puttylike person.

I highlighted so many passages while reading How to Be Everything, but here are a few worth excerpting (page numbers from the HarperCollins Kindle Edition):

that the key to thriving in an uncertain economy is having “a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models and assumptions.” In the postrecession era, adaptability is not merely an asset; it’s a necessity. (pp. 26-27)

[On studying the components of a happy multipotentialite:] They had all designed lives that provided them with three common elements: money, meaning, and variety—in the amounts that were right for them. (pp. 34-35)

For multipotentialites, productivity is about more than just getting things done. We need to make sure that we’re working on the right things, that our schedule is conducive to getting things done, and that we understand when it is time to abandon a project and move on to the next. (p. 147).

The principle goes like this: the majority of our activities can be divided into three categories: creating, connecting, and consuming. Creating involves bringing something new into existence. Connecting involves reaching out to others and can include activities such as responding to e-mails or posting on social media. Consuming is any activity that involves research or learning. It can consist of reading books or articles, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and so on. All three categories of activities are important. But to get the most out of them, you should respect the combining rule: Connecting and Consuming activities can be combined, but should never be combined with Creating. (pp. 171-172).

One of the most common concerns for multipotentialites is that we won’t measure up to specialists who have been working in a field for decades...Being effective matters more than being the best...Your work should be about delivering, not about reaching the top of your field. (pp. 185-186).

What does it mean to lead with your multipotentiality? It isn’t just about accepting and embracing your inner wiring. That’s only the beginning. To lead with your multipotentiality is to build a sustainable life around your plurality. It means figuring out, in practical terms, how to get the money, meaning, and variety you require so that you can flourish. (pp. 201-202).

These were just some of the passages that had me nodding along vigorously, feeling understood and spoken to in ways that rarely happen when reading a "professional development" book. I am a multipotentialite! And I'm really happy about it.

In the struggles I mentioned above, I had been trying to find my new "one thing."  The book helped me see both that my past approach to life and work was not as single-minded and focused as I thought it was, and that what I actually want professionally and personally is the freedom to explore a wide variety of interests, practices and experiences.

When I was running my website development business, I wasn't just a tech guy running a tech business. I was a software developer, graphic designer, project manager, accountant, lawyer, sales person, marketing person, manager, personal coach, and so much more. I also managed to find time to be a community volunteer, non-profit board member, and even candidate for elected office.

As Wapnick says, "The easiest way to work for a boss who lets you wear many hats at work is to be your own boss. There are few careers more multifaceted than entrepreneurship." This was so true for me; co-founding and running my own business was one of the best things I could have done for embracing my multipotentialite nature.

Fortunately, my current job also allows me a lot of potential to live out my best multipotentialite self. Working for a distributed company that values "what you deliver" over many other things, and in a field that's at an intersection of so many of my current interests (software engineering, journalism, writing, the open web, democratizing publishing) is amazing. I don't have to hide my long lists of things I'd like to try. I can pursue my passions so much more easily than if I were commuting every day to a single location with a narrowly defined role whose success was measured by how many hours I appeared to spend on it at my desk.

Wapnick calls this the Einstein 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." It's one of four different models for living a multipotentialite life that she describes, the others being Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work."), Slash ("having two or more part-time jobs and/or businesses that you flit between on a regular basis."), and Phoenix ("working in a single industry for several months or years and then shifting gears and starting a new career in a new industry").

The book did a great job of laying out some strategies and tactics for thriving within each of these models. I am always in danger of distraction, feeling bad that I don't have enough time for all my interests, or wrestling with what to say when people ask what I'm up to these days. Having advice on how to manage all of that while making sure I give the things that are important to me my best energy was really great. (The related article on 9 Ways to Explain Your Multipotentiality to Non-Mulitpotentialites was also really helpful - it's what resulted in the "Deep Generalist" label I'm now using for myself on social media and elsewhere.)

If any of what I've said about being a multipotentialite resonates with you, even a little bit, I can't recommend How To Be Everything enough. I'm planning on reading it again soon, if only to work through some of the exercises and questions that accompany each chapter in a little more depth. And if you're REALLY interested, Wapnick also started The Puttytribe, a community of multipotentialites looking for conversation and support.

I'm grateful to have found a framework that gives new meaning and structure to my past and present pursuits, and that makes me even more excited to think about the future.

2017 Year in Review

Happy New Year. As arbitrary Gregorian boundary conditions go, I've been really looking forward to the end of 2017. And as I've done in the past I'm posting a few thoughts from the year. (Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011.)

Personal

Though I know the machinations of U.S. politics and culture are not a primary concern for many people in the world, it felt like a year where I could not get out from under the dark cloud of the current presidential administration and the things we are naming and learning about ourselves as a society. I'm someone who usually follows news and politics closely, so it was tough to balance awareness, engagement, activism and appropriate amounts of anger with self-care, long-term thinking and finding any kind of focus or calm. I don't think I did very well with that process, and I've watched it take a toll on me, people I love and communities that I care about.

On top of that I spent a lot of time and energy this year accompanying my mom through her cancer treatment and related medical adventures; it was a source of always-present, low-level (and sometimes high-level) stress that was never too far in the background. I was of course always honored to bring care and support where it was needed, but it was hard watching her be consistently miserable while wondering when or how things could get better.

It was a year of incredible growth for our daughter, going from a barely walking toddler with a relatively small vocabulary to a whirlwind of a kid who runs through the house asking us hard questions, telling stories and expressing strong opinions. A day doesn't go by that I don't look at her in amazement, or that my wife and I aren't asking to each other, "did you know that she can do that??" Witnessing and participating in literal child-like wonder has been a special bit of grace in these times.

Oh yeah, and I turned 40.

All in all, it felt like my ability to focus and be fully present to much of anything was severely limited throughout the year. I hope 2018 is better and am taking some steps to make it so.

Continue reading "2017 Year in Review"

Forty

I turned 40 years old this week.

Friends have been kind to say that "you don't look forty" (whatever that looks like) and thankfully I don't feel "old," even if I don't often feel young any more.

I do notice the occasional sign of what might be aging.

I find myself increasing the font size on my various devices and apps, and at an appointment this week my eye doctor used the language of "you can't outrun it forever" instead of the past variations on "you're young, no worries."

A few weeks ago I butt-dialed two different people over two days.

The distance across which I can walk to retrieve or do something without forgetting why I started walking in the first place is decreasing. If it involves going to a different floor of the house, forget about it.

My hair has more strands of grey than ever before.

And my ability to sleep through the night without needing a visit to the restroom is all but gone.

Continue reading "Forty"

My new team at Automattic

Starting next week, I'll be shifting my focus at Automattic and joining our "WordPress Concierge" team.

It's a small group of talented folks who build custom WordPress sites for influential people and organizations across a bunch of different industries. I'll be creating and supporting the sites we work on while also helping to help the team scale up its internal tools and processes. I'm excited to flex a different mix of skills and ship some new kinds of things.

It's hard to believe that it's already been more than three years since I joined Automattic and began working with the VIP team, where I'm wrapping up my time this week. That role has been full of its own interesting and rewarding adventures that have taken me deep into the heart of the systems and tools that power the modern open web.

Continue reading "My new team at Automattic"

2016 Year in Review

With another year gone by, I'm again sharing a few reflections on how 2016 went. (Previously: 2015, 2014, 2011.)

New house, staying in Indiana

Sky TrainWith a big shift in my wife's professional life and an intentional wrapping up of most of my local commitments that required regular attendance at in-person meetings, this year found me as physically untethered to the city of Richmond, Indiana as I've been since I first came here in 1995. We spent much of the year asking whether we should stay, or take the opportunity to explore living in new places outside of the U.S. midwest. (Someone even started a rumor that we'd already moved away.) I reflected a lot on why I've stayed in Richmond this long, what we'd be giving up if we did go, and what we'd gain by living somewhere else.

There are changes happening locally and regionally that concern us, and there are times we want our daughter to have more diverse experiences than we can find in Richmond, so we know we'll keep considering these questions. But we decided that our wonderful community of friends and family, the difference we feel like we can make locally, and the opportunities we still have to see and live in other parts of the world all added up to staying in Richmond right now.

Continue reading "2016 Year in Review"

Parenting, year one

I haven't written much in this space about my experience of parenting so far. I suppose that's partly out of reluctance to claim any special insight in such a well established and oft-documented part of the human adventure. Partly it's because much of the time I've spent in the past on writing has instead gone to parenting itself, or recovering from the lack of sleep involved therein. And partly it's because I only have mostly gushing, positive things to say about it, bordering on the disturbingly hyperbolic.

But here I am at a year into the experience - we celebrated A.'s first birthday last week with family and cupcakes - so it seems important to acknowledge that milestone here too.

First I'll get some of the clichés out of the way:

  • Everything changes
  • It's a miracle
  • Sleep when they sleep
  • It takes a village
  • It gets easier
  • Just when you find a routine, things change
  • Hardest and most rewarding thing you've ever done

All of those have been true for us in some form or another. Details available upon request.

A point Kelly and I acknowledge often is how much harder parenting would be if it wasn't something you wanted or chose. We feel fortunate every day we get to parent A. because it is something we decided to do, knowing full well that it would be a challenge and a life-changing experience. My empathy for people who weren't ready to be parents, or for whom parenting is much different than they expected for whatever reasons in or out of their control, has grown significantly. For me and I think for Kelly, even on the hardest, most exhausting days of parenting, we still know and feel that there's no other way we'd want it to be.

See, gushing. I warned you. Ready for more?

Continue reading "Parenting, year one"

Working for someone else

This week marks two full years of my employment at Automattic. I was fortunate to celebrate in person with a number of my colleagues as we hosted a workshop for our clients and partners in beautiful Napa, California.

People who know that I co-founded and built my own tech business before joining Automattic often ask me what it's like to work for someone else. My short answer is usually:

  • I miss some of the joys and challenges that go with being ultimately responsible for the success of a business venture...
  • ...but Automattic is a place where I am trusted with a level of autonomy that I'd be hard pressed to find in many other employment situations, and
  • I am mostly just enjoying discovering new ways of doing things and being a part of a bigger team with greater resources available for innovation.

This post is my longer answer. While working at another company it has been useful and interesting to notice what it's like to have a change in my professional identity, not be "the boss," enthusiastically support something I didn't create, and try to balance the joys of "employment" with the inner itch to again be a "founder."

Continue reading "Working for someone else"