Personal

The power of saying no to yourself

“You’re just going to have to say no more often.”

I was having lunch with a friend, who also happens to be the pastor at my church. We get together most Fridays to talk church business and to catch up on each others’ lives.

I told him that I feel relaxed. As relaxed as I get, anyway; I’m pretty high strung. But more relaxed than at any time I can remember in my adult life. The last time I remember being this relaxed was more than a quarter century ago, when I’d take a summer job after coming home from the stress and pressure of engineering school. Every summer’s job was different and interesting, but seldom difficult. I loved the change of pace, the experience of something new. I always went back to school refreshed and ready for another hard year.

This summer has felt much like that. After I lost a high-stress job on the first of June, I quickly landed a part-time consulting job advising a startup software company. I asked a lot of questions, soaked in their culture and methodology, worked alongside their programmers a little, and gave them a ton of advice from my experience about how to deliver quality software. It was fun!

Working part-time this summer let my life slow down, too, but I was surprised by how full it remained. I was just running at a peaceful pace, rather than full tilt. It has been wonderful!

Eight weeks have gone by, and now I’m refreshed and ready to return to full-time work. Fortunately, two good job offers landed this week, and I accepted one of them. I’ll be back to work the first week of August.

No Dumping

But I’m not ready to return to high stress. That’s why my friend advised me to say no: that little word really is the key to a satisfying and sane life.

But everything I’m involved in — work, family, church, the Historic Michigan Road Association, photography, this blog — are important to me. And while they make for a busy life, they also make for an interesting life. I’m not willing to let anything go.

So how do I say no without actually saying no? And then it hit me: how much of my former ridiculous pace was self-inflicted? What attitudes or tendencies do I have that lead me to push myself so hard?

Hint: I’m a classic overachiever. That’s what I can let go, or at least work at letting go. Here are some things I’m saying no to, effective immediately.

Say no to a tyrannical personal schedule. I felt like I had to keep perfectly on top of it all. I lived in fear of anything in my work and personal life going off the rails.

During and shortly after my crushingly stressful divorce, I lived in a constant crisis mode where even a small thing going wrong, like running out of milk or clean underwear, or not keeping up with cutting the grass, could snowball on me fast and mercilessly. It led me to keep an intricate and demanding personal schedule so everything is always handled.

It was tyranny. And this summer taught me that I’ve kept it up far beyond its usefulness. In the extra time I’ve had this summer, it’s been easy to adapt and respond to whatever has come. What peace it has brought! I want to hold onto that peace as much as I can.

I won’t return to such a tight schedule. It means things might go wrong sometimes, and I will have to adapt and respond to it. I might have to run to Walmart at 6:30 in the morning for milk for my son’s breakfast. I might have to pay someone to cut the grass, or take an afternoon off to cut it, or just let it grow long for a while. And I will just buy a lot of extra underwear.

No Smoking

Say no to my desire to knock every ball out of the park. At work, I always want to absolutely crush it. I find deep satisfaction in a job extremely well done. But it takes a lot of time, which leads to me packing too much into my days, which leads to a tyrannical schedule at work. No more. The added stress and reduced peace are not worth it. I’m going to figure out how good each task needs to be to meet its need, and stop there, even if it drives me a little crazy at first. I’ve said for years that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ll put that to the test when I go back to work.

Say no to situations and environments that aren’t a fit. The last year or so at my last company, I felt like I was constantly walking into strong headwinds. I saw future problems we were creating for ourselves, but was unable to get anyone to see them and therefore to buy into any ideas I had to prevent them. I even clashed a little with a few of my peers over it. I was never a great cultural fit there anyway, as it was a strong alpha-male culture and I’m generally more of a quiet collaborator.

But I kept leaning into the headwind, trying to adapt myself to the culture, trying to find new ways to advance my ideas. I might as well have pissed into that wind for all the good it did me. I was on a fast train to burnout.

I’ve had temporary rough patches in many workplaces. I can push through those. But if I feel like I never stop rolling the stone uphill, it is time to move on to a situation where I can have some success.

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Personal

You probably wouldn’t do the things you say you’d do if only you had more time

The tiger lilies and the phlox in my front garden always bloom last. Their annual emergence is my sure sign summer is here.

solstice_tiger_lily solstice_phlox

The days on either side of solstice are my favorite time of year. The days last so long, with 15 hours of glorious daylight. It’s usually temperate in Indiana, with highs in the 70s or 80s. The trees are fully leaved, young bunnies hop all around the neighborhood, and the flowers just keep coming. It’s so easy to feel happy as spring fades into summer.

And thanks to unexpectedly working only part-time right now, I’m getting to enjoy these days like I haven’t since I was a boy. The time I have! The things I can do that I keep saying I want to!

Except that I’m not really doing them. I started a couple long-neglected yard chores but they remain unfinished. Except for a few long walks and one good bike ride, I really haven’t launched that fitness regimen I’ve long talked about. I haven’t finally cleaned and reorganized my garage. I haven’t given more time to the church or to the nonprofit I help run.

What I’m finding is that everything I normally do has expanded to fill most of the extra time — I’m taking things slower. With the rest of the time, I’m sleeping in a little and I’m stopping more often to breathe the air and look at my flowers.

There are two reasons, I think. First, I think I don’t really want to do those things. They’re just things I think I ought to be doing, and I blame lack of time for not doing them. I think we tend to naturally prioritize the things we want to do, within the time available to us. It turns out that sleeping and enjoying a little idle time were actually next on my must-do list.

But second, my life was too busy before. I frequently burn the candle at both ends. Working only part time has let me ease up. It feels like a vacation. I’d like to keep some of this when I eventually return to full-time work.

Does this resonate with you? What do you say you want to do if you had more time? What do you think you’d actually do with that time?

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Personal

The hot girl at the dance

“Oh my gosh, Jim, you’re the hot girl at the dance!”

A former boss called to ask about my week on the job hunt, and that’s what she said after I told her.

Potawatomi dancers

This is an American Indian dancing at a Potawatomi pow-wow. This isn’t the kind of dancing I’m talking about, but I’ve taken few photos that relate to dancing! I feel like I can get away with this because I’m part Potawatomi.

What a week it was! I landed a short-term consulting job with a startup software company. It starts today. An interview with a different company went very well, wrapping with the interviewer saying, “I think you need to meet the partners. I’ll schedule that for next week.” Thanks to introductions from a couple key colleagues, I had lunch or coffee with a handful of software-company presidents and vice presidents, and the chief financial officer at a venture-capital firm that funds startup tech companies. And that former boss even admitted that she was trying to make funds appear to hire me.

I am astonished.

Some context: for about the last 10 years here in Indianapolis, tech has been hot. Qualified people are hard to find. The last time I hired someone, I searched four months to find him.

And then in the past few weeks, I learned that the city’s tech scene is even hotter than I knew. A colleague who owns a consulting firm that serves this industry told me that he knows of about 200 local companies that make software. Most are very small, he said, with fewer than 20 people; many will wash out. But new startup companies are forming all the time. The venture-capital CFO told me that in five years, he expects as many as 300 more tech companies to form.

I had no idea that I’m swimming in so much opportunity. I’ve learned of it only as I’ve reconnected with colleagues I’ve worked with long ago. Many of them are now in executive roles and are well connected in the industry, and are bending over backwards to help me. It helps a lot that I’ve done good work in my career and people have (for the most part!) enjoyed working with me.

It makes me wish I’d stayed well connected with the good people from earlier in my career. I wrote about this on my software blog; read it here. Like I said there, I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself.

I brought this up to another colleague last week over coffee. He was the president of a software company I used to work for, and has since started his own company. “Jim, you now have two jobs,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing to earn a paycheck, and maintaining and expanding your network.” He admitted his own introversion, but said that he’s worked hard to stay well connected. It’s how he’s built his new business. “You can build these habits too. You should.”

I will.

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I feel like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life

GeorgeBailey

As soon as I got the news that I was being laid off at work, I texted my closest friends and colleagues with the news. And after I packed my office into my car and drove home, I emailed a bunch more friends and colleagues.

Spidey2I’ve worked for a lot of software companies in my career. Changing companies is how I’ve gained new challenges, moved up the ladder, and made more money. But as a result I know a lot of people in my industry all over town. And they swung into action like my own personal army of Spider-Men.

Spidey3I was deluged with replies. I had a call from a recruiter by lunchtime, and by mid-afternoon a coffee was scheduled with a woman I once worked for who is now a VP at a major local employer of software developers. She gave me a bunch of practical, useful advice on my search, and sent me a bunch of information about companies she talked to around town earlier in the year as she searched for the job she now holds. She told me she’d introduce me to anybody she met at any of those companies.

Spidey1The next day, one of my oldest friends, who is well known and well connected in the open-source community, started asking around about freelance jobs I can do to make some money while I search. And I started reaching out to colleagues I enjoyed working with in the past but who I haven’t talked to in a while, to schedule lunches and coffees to catch up and see if they could connect me to people who might need someone who can do what I do. I’m booked for lunch for the next two weeks and have coffees sprinkled across my calendar.

Spidey4And then the CFO of the company that let me go emailed me to schedule coffee, at which he opened his considerable contact list to me and offered to connect me with anybody he knew. That led to a few more coffees being scheduled with software-company CEOs and VPs around town — and directly to one job interview, with a company that needs to build a software testing practice. That’s exactly what I do best!

The strongest advice my VP colleague gave me was don’t settle. She urged me to wait for just the job I want — one with the right cultural fit (collaborative and collegial), at the right level in the organization (Director), with the right salary, doing the things I like to do the most (building and leading teams of technical people, driving projects, delivering software).

The closer I get to the money running out, the more I will have no choice but to settle so I can pay the mortgage. I hope that right next job is in this tidal wave of responses. This surge will peter out sooner or later, and then I will have to start working on alternate plans: aggressively seeking freelance and consulting jobs, and looking at permanent positions that aren’t exactly what I want but which will pay the bills.

But today, I feel like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when everybody he knew in Bedford Falls collected money to make up for the Building and Loan’s $8,000 shortfall. I feel affirmed and valued, at a depth I didn’t know existed. They say that in hard times you learn who your friends are. I’ve learned that I have far more friends than I ever knew.


All the little Spider-Men above courtesy Disneyclips.com.

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Rolling with the transitions

My older son graduated high school on Saturday. It’s a day for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. I was glad to celebrate this passage with him, though he said he felt much as I did when I graduated high school: “Dad, I’m a good student; was there ever any doubt this day would come?”

But I’ll admit it, the day tore open some hard feelings for me — regrets that thanks to the divorce and living apart, I didn’t get to spend every day with him as he grew up. And I see even less of him now as he has taken a job and prepares to go to Purdue in the fall. I really miss him.

When we’ve managed to get together lately, we’ve had some really good talks. He loves video games as much as I love old cameras and film photography. He deeply understands game design and has a remarkable feel for story arc and how it is best used in games. He also has good insight into the business of video games, which is enough like the business of software (what I do for a living) that we can talk meaningfully about the ins and outs of what makes both a video game and other software products successful, and why sometimes a seemingly sure thing fails.

Doing homework, as usual

In college, doing homework, as usual

But I also got to say some things to him about heading into this next phase of his life. I remember going off to college at 17 and feeling not just that I was expected to keep moving forward, away from my parents and into my adulthood, but that the door had closed behind me. I’m sure my parents didn’t mean for me to feel that way, and would have been supportive had I reached out. But I felt alienated from all I had known just the same.

And then I had some typical difficulties of adjusting to college. Because I chose a tough school, I was buried in homework and worked harder than I ever have since. I struggled with some of my classes and briefly wound up on academic probation. I kept getting sick, as the same bugs got passed around the dorm over and over again. I became deeply depressed, and I felt like I had to bear it all alone.

I was unusually fortunate then to know my calling: making software. I pursued it, I pushed through the difficulties, and for the last 26 years have spent my working days doing it. But my son is more typical. He has a general direction in mind, but the picture of his future is cloudy.

But even if he knew exactly where he was headed, I don’t want him to feel as alone as I did. I told him that no matter what, I’m on his team. If things get tough, he should call; I’ll listen to him dump and vent. If he needs to come home to decompress for the weekend, I’ll go get him. If he wants to change majors, he should just do it. If he decides Purdue isn’t for him, then for heaven’s sake don’t stay. Come home and we’ll figure out a next step.

01-001 proc sm

An apple on my former desk in my former office

It’s ironic, then, that I’m not making software at the moment. I was laid off from my job last Monday. My boss came to my office, ashen-faced, first thing to break the bad news.

I joined the company when it was small to build a testing team from scratch. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure it works.) They make a very useful product, one that has a real chance at changing an entire industry for the better. But the company has always struggled to sell enough of it.

And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when my boss said that the company needed to cut expenses to match revenue, and that it meant my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues.

Truth? I was flooded with relief. I had been unhappy for some time. There were things I had hoped to do there that I thought would deeply benefit the company but in which I couldn’t generate any real interest. It was frustrating and disappointing to see my ideas repeatedly rebuffed. And I just didn’t mesh with my peers in management. The company culture loves bold alpha males, and so the middle-management team tends to be lone wolves who operate independently. While I’m all about moving initiatives forward powerfully, I’m more of a quiet collaborator. I kept feeling steamrolled and countermanded by my high-independence, high-action, high-emotion peers. It was exhausting.

I’m not wealthy — the modest payout the company gave me will run out sometime this summer, and then I’ll have to start paying the bills with the money I plan to send to Purdue. I have plenty of anxiety over that. But fortunately, I’m well connected in my industry in my town, and I’m working my network hard. Right now, it’s very hard to fill open positions in software development here, as pretty much everyone who wants to work in the field has a job. The last time I hired someone, resumes trickled in and it took four months to find a good candidate. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be back to work before the money runs out. Wish me luck.

But there is a bright side: when my son visits this summer, at least I’ll have time to spend with him.

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