Life

Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

I wrote this five years ago, when my sons were in high school and thinking about their futures. I’m thrilled to see how much of this advice they took, and how relevant it remains today.

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. There are paths to move up in those worlds but they are hard and slow. This will suck; avoid it if you can.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

Dad and Sons

Me with my sons, now both in college

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I was only an average programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway.

You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due one month after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!

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Growth, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record

On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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Construction

Under Construction
Pentax KM, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax
Ferrania P30 Alpha
2017

Downtown Fishers, Indiana, is under construction.

This was once a sleepy little downtown of a few older buildings alongside a railroad track. Fishers started out as just a place to stop along the Nickel Plate Railroad. Now its burgeoning downtown is called the Nickel Plate District. It’s modern urban density, except that it’s in one of Indianapolis’s most popular suburbs.

I rather miss the little houses that used to dot Fishers’s narrow streets.

Photography

single frame: Under construction

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Drink Coffee Do Work

Drink coffee, do work
Apple iPhone 6s
2017

Before I drive to work I drink three mugs of coffee. Then at work I drink as many as three more. It’s a family thing; we all do it. I tried to resist — I hardly drank coffee, just stayed away from it, through about my mid 20s. But I finally fell, and hard. And the older I get, the more I consume. But I’ve drawn the line: six mugs is all I’ll drink in a day. That’s a full pot of coffee!

Photography

single frame: Drink coffee, do work

Photo: Drink coffee, do work

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Light sculpture

I start a new job today.

I make my living in software development (and blog about it occasionally over here). This is all I’ve wanted to do since I taught myself to code in the early 1980s. I’ve written a little code, written a lot of user instructions, and tested a lot of broken software. But mostly I’ve led teams and projects. I’ve done that for the last 20 years and I love it.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you might remember that my employer couldn’t afford to pay me anymore in 2015 and I spent the summer looking for work. I had been Director of Quality Assurance, and pretty quickly I found a position with the same title and was back to work. I was enormously fortunate.

The new company was a good place to work, and I liked the people there. I’ll miss being there every day! But to my surprise, I wasn’t finding great satisfaction in the role. Slowly it dawned on me that after 16 years in QA I’d done everything I could do in the field. It was time for a new adventure.

I’m not leaving the software world. I’m just shifting to a new role: Director of Engineering, leading the coders. Long story short, I decided that to do what I still want to do in my career, I would need to shift to engineering leadership.

My new company isn’t entirely new to me — they hired me as a consultant the summer I looked for permanent work. Since then, they hired my brother to be their Director of QA. When they needed a new Director of Engineering, they easily recruited me to the role. The company is a startup, with all the risk that implies: iterating on a product idea and trying to find market fit, all the while trying not to run out of investment capital.

But in my career I’ve been driven by adventure, and this is just the kind of adventure I like. So off I go!

I shot this photograph inside the company’s building while there for one of my interviews. I used my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Kodak Tri-X 400 film. I’ll get to see this light sculpture every weekday now!

Photography, Stories Told

Beginning a new adventure

Thoughts on starting a new job, as Director of Engineering at a software startup.

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Life, Stories Told

Fortune’s careless aim: The myth that hard work alone creates success

It’s the American mythos: if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. But I no longer think it’s true.

Mind you, I’m all for hard work. But I think success also requires good resources and good luck. Actually, I think resources and luck are more important than hard work. They make hard work gain solid traction. Without them, a lifetime of hard work usually yields very little.

I see it all the time in the inner-city church I attend: teens struggling to make a viable life as they enter adulthood, adults working hard only to barely tread water. Many of these people are bright and capable and have dreams they’d like to achieve. Few of them make a stable life, despite their best efforts.

In contrast, I’ve done well in my life. I make upper-middle-class money — not so much that I’m free from financial worry, but enough that the wolves are so far from the door that I’ve pretty much forgotten what they look like.

What has brought my good fortune? Hard work has certainly been important. But I’ve also had resources that my inner-city church friends simply lack, and those resources and my willingness to work have let me capitalize on the luck that has come my way.

My story illustrates my point very well. So I’m going to tell it three times: first through the lens of hard work, then through the lens of resources and luck, and finally through the lens of some of the difficulties I’ve faced, some of which were severe. As you read it, think of your story. How hard have you worked? What setbacks have you experienced? How have your resources and luck enabled — or lack thereof limited — success?

My story through the lens of hard work

Here’s the version of my life story, from the perspective of the success I’ve found in my life. Told this way, it looks like hard work really pays off.

I applied myself in school and got good grades. I also learned how to program computers. These things got me into a top engineering school where I worked harder than ever before or since. I got a degree in mathematics and computer science. I moved into a career in software development, where I’ve worked hard for more than a quarter century now and have risen through the ranks. Today, I’m a director in a software company. I have an upper-middle-class job and I’m doing well.

My story through the lens of resources and luck

I have worked hard. But when you look at my life through a wider lens, you can see how many resources I had available to me, and how good luck at key moments led to important opportunities.

I was born in 1967 to working-class parents who had high-school educations. We didn’t have much for a long time, but my parents were frugal and we never went without. Manufacturing jobs were reasonably plentiful then and Dad worked steadily. He was smart and capable, and in the 1980s was promoted to management.

My parents deliberately created a quiet, stable environment for my younger brother and me. We were well cared for and loved. Education was everything to them. Homework came first. They praised and rewarded our scholastic achievements. They always spoke of college as something we would do as if it were the natural next step after high school.

I was intelligent. I taught myself to read by age 3. And then I turned out to be well-suited for school — I was naturally well behaved and liked the rules and structure. I did the work and got excellent grades. In high school, I was accepted into all the advanced-placement classes, and I liked the challenge.

As I entered high school, the then-new home computers were just becoming affordable. I’d shown aptitude so Dad, flush with a new management-level salary, bought me one. I taught myself to write code on it. I spent hours mastering programming and really loved it.

I started writing programs to illustrate the concepts I was learning in my advanced-placement geometry class, and the teacher learned of it and had me demonstrate them to the class. He was impressed. “Jim, you could do this for a living.” That was a revelation: I had no idea people made careers out of programming computers. “You’ve got talent,” he continued. “You should study at Rose-Hulman. You have what it takes to make it there.”

I’d never heard of Rose-Hulman. It turns out it’s one of the nation’s top engineering schools, and it’s here in Indiana. I thought surely I couldn’t get in, but I applied anyway. To my astonishment, I was accepted.

MeAtRose1987

In my room at Rose in 1987

Rose is expensive, and was out of my family’s reach. But the Lilly Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Indiana pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, was at that time helping bright first-generation college students go to private colleges. Their grant paid for a large portion of my college expenses. I also got a federal grant and a couple smaller scholarships. One federal program let me borrow some money, and another paid me to work part-time on campus. A state program helped me find summer work to earn more money. My parents were left with about 1/3 of the bill, bringing Rose just into reach. They lived on next to nothing while they paid for it.

Rose was enormously challenging. Like that teacher said, I never have worked harder before or since. But I made it through, with a degree in mathematics and a concentration in computer science.

At graduation, the country was in a recession. Like many of my classmates, I had trouble landing a job. I wanted to be a programmer, but those jobs were scarce. But I had taken a technical-writing course as an English elective, and the professor connected me with a local software company that wanted to hire a technical writer. The company was founded by a Rose grad who liked to hire other Rose grads. I got the job.

I wrote and edited technical materials for a dozen years at several companies. At one company, my boss saw something in me and promoted me to manager. And then it turns out I had an aptitude for leading people, and liked it. After completing a successful and important project, he gave me a new opportunity to lead software testing, and mentored me as I learned the ropes.

A burgeoning software industry has formed in central Indiana, and I’ve ridden the wave, moving every few years from company to company to take on greater responsibilities and new challenges. Along the way, several people have mentored me or taught me a skill I lacked. It’s enabled me to deliver well everywhere I’ve worked.

It’s been enough to impress corporate CEOs and Vice Presidents all over town enough that I can call them up and meet them for coffee. Last summer, I reached out to them all in search of a new challenge. With their help, within eight weeks I was in a new role at a company with a bright future.

My story through the lens of life challenges

You might now think that I’ve lived a charmed life. But I have had some deep difficulties and stunning setbacks.

I’m not going to air my family’s dirty laundry here, but suffice it to say that there were challenges that led me to enter adulthood with difficulties forming healthy relationships, and that held me back for a long time. I lived with major depression and anxiety through my 20s and 30s. I was abused by someone who was supposed to love me and was left with PTSD. I endured a terrible marriage and, inevitably, a brutal and expensive divorce. I’ve had a monkey on my back. I live with a chronic health issue that, for a while, I worried would leave me disabled. I’ve been let go twice by companies that couldn’t afford to pay me anymore, and I was fired once.

These things have, point blank, held me back from greater success.

Yet they didn’t crush me. They could have; I’m not made of rock and titanium. I see people at my church struggle with many of the same challenges and it devastates their lives, leading to bankruptcy and homelessness, or severe chronic mental and physical illness. Sometimes they never recover.

The major difference, and the reason I’ve come through all of that okay, is because I’ve had good resources: family and friends who offered support, and money (and good insurance) to get help when I needed it.

Key themes in my story

Several key themes are woven through my story.

Timing. That I was born in 1967 is very important. I was about the right age for all of these things:

  • When I was a teenager, home computers became affordable to a family that had just emerged into the middle class.
  • When I entered engineering school, the Lilly Foundation was actively helping people in my situation pay for it.
  • When I entered the workforce, software companies were just starting to exist in quantity, creating demand for talent even during the recession we were in then.
  • When I began to mature in my field, the dot-com boom was forming and software companies were desperate for talent. It gave me the opportunity to move into leadership, which springboarded my career and, eventually, my income. That bubble burst, but another, more sustainable boom followed, and has created endless opportunity.

If I had been born a few years before or after 1967, I would have been the wrong age to fully enjoy most of these advantages.

Family. The family in which I grew up wasn’t perfect, but my parents loved me and raised me well overall. They didn’t have much money, but they were hyperfocused on making sure I got a very good education. They have been a source of support and encouragement throughout my life, especially during the most difficult days.

Natural abilities. I’m intelligent and intensely curious. My brain is wired just right to understand and enjoy technology.

Working/middle-class life skills. I know how to get to work on time and how to please my boss. I have good life-organization skills: there’s always enough food in the house, I pay my bills on time and have good credit, I keep my car and house well maintained (and do as much of the work myself as I can).

Willingness to work hard. I like to work. Look at me today: director in a software company, raising teenagers, president of a nonprofit, elder in my church, publishing in this blog six days a week.

Good people. Just look at all the people who have helped me: The geometry teacher. The English professor. The boss who promoted me to management and taught me the ropes in software testing. The other mentors and colleagues I’ve alluded to who have elevated my abilities and helped me find new opportunities. Friends who supported me through difficult times and connected me with professionals who could help me.

Money. Just look at all the places money came from. My parents’ labor and sacrifice. A philanthropic organization. Federal and Indiana governments. And now, a healthy salary thanks to being a reasonably talented person in a booming field. Funds have been available to pay for college, for lawyers through my expensive divorce, and for healthcare professionals.

These incredible resources have provided a solid foundation on which I’ve been able to build a pretty good life — and recover from setbacks and difficulties.

My story through the lens of great wealth

Let me try to tell my story through one more lens, as best as I can: from the viewpoint of someone who was born into far greater privilege than me.

One of my college roommates was from a very wealthy family. To give you an idea of just how wealthy, he grew up in his own wing of his family’s mansion. Given my working-class roots, we were an odd pair of friends. I had no real concept of his reality, and he had little concept of mine, but we had Rose-Hulman and computer programming in common and it made our friendship work.

He could see that I had no clue about what success looked like in his world. Sometimes he gingerly offered me advice from his perspective. More than once, he coached me hard to save money and build capital. “When you get your first job, save up $10,000 as fast as you can,” he said. He detailed some ways I should invest it. “And then save another $10,000. And keep investing. It won’t take that long, really, for your money to grow to $50,000 or $100,000 or beyond — and then you’ll have money you can really work with.”

I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it. I came from a mindset of working to pay the bills — and if you had any left over, it went into a fully liquid emergency fund. And $10,000 was an unimaginable sum to me then. Even if I could save it, why would I tie it up in investments? What if something went wrong and I needed it?

He also talked to me about the importance of building relationships in my career, especially with VPs and CEOs. But to me, people with such lofty titles might as well have been 25 feet tall. Who was I to them? Why would they want to even talk to me? What did I have to offer them anyway? I’d rather let my hard work and eventual accomplishments speak for themselves.

That friend and I slowly drifted apart after college, I think in some part because he was living in his upper-class reality and I was living life according to my working/middle-class rules. From my perspective, I’ve done something remarkable: moved up one socioeconomic class. But I think my friend was frustrated to see me squander my resources. That’s how he saw it, anyway. From my perspective, I was living successfully.

With my success of about the last 10 years and the world to which it has introduced me, my mind has slowly, finally come to see where my wealthy friend was coming from. You see some of it towards the end of my resources-and-luck story: how I do have VP/CEO contacts now, and I maintain those relationships. But even then, I did it the working/middle-class way: by proving myself through my work first.

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So consider your story. What time in the world were you born into and how did that play into your success? Were you born into poverty, the working or middle class, or wealth? What life skills did your upbringing give you or not give you? Was your family emotionally healthy and a source of strength in your life? Did you have any major setbacks in your life? If so, were you able to recover from them? Why or why not? Do you have good friends, good colleagues, good professional contacts? Where has money come from in your life and how has it helped you get ahead?

Because no matter how hard you’ve worked, without those advantages you would be nowhere near as successful as you have been.

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