See that right there? That’s a paper I helped author while working at Microsoft Research, published and presented by my ex-boss and totally awesome researcher and all-around guy, Steven Drucker at the CHI 2013 Conference in Paris.
…(I’d be more excited if I could have afforded to go to Paris, I admit. But still.)
It was awesome to work with those guys and honestly I doubt I’ll ever be surrounded by so many PhDs again. If you’re curious about the project, you can take a look at my portfolio for the process work or check out this older post with the video of the motion design.
I went to a workshop this past weekend run by RISD for students/ alumni/ community who were interested in learning more about the basics of starting a business. So business plans, pitching, funding, legal issues, etc. Totally invaluable to where I am right now, because otherwise I’m stuck with hunting down people more experienced than I and peppering them with questions, hoping they don’t get sick of me before I run out of things to ask. But I also went in, without realizing it, with a lot of baggage of what I percieved to by my own limitations. That is for me, in a word, math. And the importance of it to a business has always been a far-off, daunting mountain that I was afraid of climbing.
I don’t have a great history with math. I was pass/fail most of highschool, and though I had some good teachers who tried their best, I felt like my mind was blocked from comprehending what they were telling me. I thought, in the typical low-self-esteem, self-blaming way of any teenager, that it was natural stupidity.
So after the first talk of this workshop, a fantastic run-through of business plans by Bill Foulkes I raised my hand and asked:
It was only later that I realized that the very way I framed my question was self-defeating and self-obstructing. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
His response piqued my curiosity, because I remember being okay at math up until that point. (Really, it was algebra that did me in. Geometry was a piece of cake though.) So when the final speaker of the day came around (the young but sharp Chris Tolles) and he told us all we’d be doing a workshop of pricing a theoretical product, I was, albeit nervous, curious to see it in action.
So he gave us the low down on our ‘product’. We made gaskets for space shuttles, but with NASA shutting their program down, Russia was going to be our only customer. They were pretty steady customers but there wasn’t going to be much growth. We could, however, switch to making rubber linings for floruescent lights, which had certain advantages over the current market products. Then, without much more than that, he told us-
So I turned to the woman next to me at my table and started thinking aloud. Not about numbers, but about questions.
And it struck me. I was figuring out the math equations. I didn’t have any numbers yet, but that would be the easy part. This wasn’t a test where I couldn’t use a calculator. The test would be the real world.
How f–ing cool was that?
As the workshop turned to discussion, I found my hand raising again and again. This was fun. This was exciting! In school, they gave you those word problems like “two trains are heading towards each other…” and I’d always wonder why we cared about when they crossed or where they collided. But this is like that problem only applied. We were the train company trying to plot the most scenic route, trying to find speeds that were efficient yet allowed for good viewing, finding the cost of the food in the dinner cars per customer, designing the interior furniture to be relaxing and period-esque. We were dealing with real problems in all their beautiful, crazy complexity.
This was math?
At this point it also dawned on me how my belief in my own incapability and limitations had held me back. So much so in fact that I’d been unable to even ask a question about it without being self-deprecating.
So I’m going to start taking notice of that from now on. What kind of questions do I ask that I preface with “I’m just/not very/but I”? Because it could very well be the reality that the only limitations I have are the ones I put on myself.
Suspend all the habits of your perception of reality. Open your mind like a dream and let the reality I’m about to tell you sink in with the same acceptance your sleeping mind gives to all your fantasies and nightmares.
There are two planets tied together. In one, you can only walk on the surface. All things live and grow and die in relation to this surface. The intelligent beings (of which you are one) are obsessed with creating intricate flat planes to live and play and travel on. Every living thing here has some sort of method to travel along or within this surface, or they have roots with which to reach into it.
Yet on the other planet, the alien planet, not only are there two predominate surfaces instead of one, but these surfaces are only points of reference for the alien creatures living within it. The world is what exists in the infinite distance between these two surfaces.
This simple yet profound difference changes everything. There are aliens who live on the top surface, those who cling to the bottom, those who rise and fall daily from one to the other, those who live in only a specific point between them, and those who spend their lives traveling between these surfaces, never touching either. In a way, it could be said that our world exists on an underscore, and the alien world between paranthesis. Because of this, our world is generally stable, while theirs is in a constant state of flux. It is moving at incredible speeds, between hot and cold, light and dark, ricocheting between one surface and the other.
Yet living in that manner is beyond our comprehension. for only short periods of time can we visit this alien world, and the rest of the time we can only build one of our flat surfaces and skim the top surface of thiers. As if in some need to hide itself from us however, the top surface is reflective, only mirroring back our own curious, wondering gazes.
But if we could see inside, vast alien civilizations would be revealed to us. Metropolitans of painstakingly built mazes of neighborhoods, bustling with life all day and night long, filled with teeming color, their lives so co-dependent that it creates a fabric of relations. And if we could see in the dark and look even deeper, we would find tower-cities built on the jagged edges of small volcanoes boiling with chemicals, their citizens ghostly white and silent.
Their third type of civilization may escape our first notice however, for in their churning world it’s possible to build entire ecosystems on the move across vast distances, all tied together by the constant movements of their world. Their sleek, roving members catch their cues in each season with a dancer’s fine timing.
There are alien giants here, so large that on our planet their weight and heat would crush and burn them from the inside out.
And these giants sing; sing across entire oceans, sing mysteries beyond our understanding. Do they sing of family and food? Do they sing of the joy of living? Do they sing of glimpses they’ve caught of our world?
There are aliens who build houses out of their bodies, aliens that live in colonies of floating white ribbons, aliens that play and speak, aliens that help us, aliens that eat us, aliens of a form and manner beyond my or your imagination.
And it’s right here. On Earth.
Every time someone says they hope to discover a distant planet with life, any time a child dreams of exploring yet fears all is already known, I want to say:
“Haven’y you realized there’s an alien world right here, in front of you, and it’s been here all along?”
Yet still I persevere. What else can I do?
Don’t you just love “How To” titles? As if I’m about to tell you everything you could possibly want to know about this topic. Table of contents, citations, bam. Everything. Well, since I only know everything about MY sleeping habits, it will not be that. Yet since I don’t believe I’m a perfectly unique snowflake in this universe, I’ll share my experience knowing there’s others out there who suffer similarly or worse.
Every time I try to sleep these days, I get a circus merry-go-round whizzing around in my head.
My mind starts throwing every email I read, every email I need to write, every new person I met, every new design change, schedule deadline, and frustrating conversation at me in endless circles until I start to feel dizzy. It’s impossible to fall asleep.
Even if I do manage to get to sleep, the anxiety comes out in a constant grinding of my teeth and tightening of my muscles until my dreams are filled with the sensation of being two stones rubbing against each other.
And sleeping pills don’t help. Okay, I haven’t tried the really strong ones, but those are iffy. You know, the whole thing about their being addictive. I’ve never liked being dependent on anything other than fresh air and exercise. But using melatonin (a supposedly non-addictive, herb-based supplement) is only good for falling asleep. And when the anxiety kicks in later that night…
These problems aren’t new for me. In fact, they’re better than they used to be. I’ve always internalized my stress, which isn’t unusual. But for some reason, it seems like others can do it without suffering many consequences besides the ocassional need to go out and get raging drunk, but my stress has always manifested psychosomatically. So not only are there the common symptoms of perspiring more, higher heart rate, etc, but I also get terrible stomach pains, heartburn, anxiety attacks, and more. Physically, it sometimes feels as if there’s a lit match in my stomach or someone’s compressing all my insides.
I wish I got a diamond out of it. Seriously.
So when it comes time to actually get some sleep, I look at modern technology and want to yell “come on, gimme a quick fix for my problem, dammit!” After all, we’re in the future already, aren’t we? So shouldn’t there be some non-addictive fix for all my problems so I can shunt my emotional life aside and not let it get in the way of my productivity??
You’ve totally thought that before. Don’t lie to yourself.
But then, in the midst of my sleepless crisis, I remember something I used to use in college. It’s called 9 Beets. An artist took Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and stretched it to 24 hours without pitch distortion, and there’s a site that streams it constantly (just click their link and select ‘open’, not ‘save’). At first, it’s unpleasant to listen to. It’s strange, a bit unnerving even. And as you start it, it feels like trying to stop a rolling car by sticking your foot out the door and dragging your sneaker on the asphalt. Yet if you stick with it and sit in a dark room with some tea and headphones, it brings all the merry-go-rounding to a stumbling, crashing fall. It stretches and relaxes your sense of time, shows you what foolishness it is to be constantly living on a techno beat.
And then… finally… sleep comes.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept the fact that we’re human. It’s easy to feel like western culture is shaving away at what makes us “only human” to the point where we look down on those who live with acknowledged limits. “Oh, you can’t hold down two jobs while starting your own business? Please.” “Why would you want a relationship that requires emotional attachment? Just hook up and move on.” “Why don’t you know how to design, animate, manage, and program too? We won’t hire you unless you do.”
And yet at the same time, we’re moving away from that. Offices are improving their quality of work-life, working from home is no longer anathema, and there’s been growing awareness of the long-term effects of working too hard without the play and relaxation.
But it’s hard to accept that in yourself, especially when you’re trying to get a business off the runway (and you’ve never flown a plane before).
But if you don’t accept it, you’ll crash. So I think I’ll be listening to 9 Beets more regularly from now on.
So at one point or another, you might have found yourself making the F5 Fishface. For those mac users or those who didn’t grow up knowing old, stupid shortcuts like that, F5 used to refresh your browser (with my machine at least, it does no longer). And the fishface part looks like this:
The design process isn’t always an exciting snap-your-fingers-this-way-and-that brainstorming explosion of awesomeness. It can be, but it can’t be all the time. Like when you’re waiting on hearing back from volunteer potential users to do usability testing and poke at your wireframes. Or potential investors and partner affiliates to hear if they agree that yes, what you’re making is indeed going to Change the World. You shouldn’t push forward and continue designing without many points of feedback (see this post on my tendency to do just that), and when you’re the project’s founder/manager/designer/marketer, it takes time to get all the ducks in a row. So how can we use this time? Let’s explore. And keep in mind that I have no intention of being brilliant. I simply wish to impart a few humble opinions from my dandalion-weed-like-growing experience.
There’s other good ideas besides the ones I illustrated here. Expand your software knowledge by learning a new prototyping tool. Explore the hurdles you think your dev is going to run into so when they say “uh that’s kinda hard” you don’t reply “why? google does it and it looks totes easy”. Figure out your company name and vision, run it by people, figure out how to get an LLC without paying a lawyer a few fingers. Get a “real job” so your parents will stop wringing their hands in (not so) quiet anxiety. Ha, that last one was a joke. But you could put in some extra hours at that part-time job you’ve got.
Now for the other side…
This list continues as well. For example, don’t network with the wrong people, meaning people who go “UX? oh, that has to do with them computers, don’t it?”. Don’t sit back and do nothing, because I can guarantee the more ‘nothing’ you do, the bigger the shit will be that hits the fan when you wake up and look around. Don’t get bogged down in tiny details when you don’t have your big picture nailed down. Don’t re-watch all your favorite Buffy episodes on Netflix.
But most of all, don’t sit in front of your computer (or carry around your phone) hitting the refresh button on your email every three minutes (especially since having to refresh your inbox for new messages to appear is, ah, slightly outdated). It will drive you closer to going insane than being fourteen did. If all else fails, leave your technology behind and go sit on a bench in a park for a few hours. Or actual nature, if you’re near that stuff. Clear your head.
Bam. There’s twenty-something wisdom for you.
There’s a certain kind of nostalgia that we have for the shitty times we lived through… whether it’s bad relationships, bad living situations, bad jobs, it happens all the time. Just talk to anyone who’s been in the military. “Ah, remember that time we were in that ditch pissing ourselves thinking we were gonna die? yeah those were the days, man… they were REAL.” Okay, I admit, I’ve never heard anyone say that, but they say it in the movies. And it always makes me think “wtf is wrong with you?”
But I get that nostalgia too. And I can’t wait to have it about where I am now.
It’s a bit crowded in the current place I’m living. Like… overflowing crowded.
It’s easy to get frustrated (especially when I come back with groceries and am trying to fit them in the fridge or when I need to use the restroom or use the stove), and there’s little sense of privacy. But the things that are bad now…
…really don’t compare to the places I’ve been.
I’ve lived in places with poisonous bugs crawling under our doors at night, with spider bites that turned into fungal infections, shaking cockroaches off of pots and pans, getting my food devoured by crackheads and zombie girlfriends in the middle of the night… and for all those places I have a bit of that weird past-tense-masochistic nostalgia. I’m not sure what it’s a mix of. “I survived that shit” mixed with “hey it could be worse” and some sort of weird bragging rights. They make good stories.
And right now, a budding entrepeneur (or bootstrapper, Seth Godin’s term which I rather like, as it sounds more appropriately flying-by-seat-of-pants-ish), with only meager paychecks from a part-time job, there’s nothing glamorous about my living conditions. Maybe Gates and Zuckerberg get inglamorous nostalgia for “those days when we were surviving off of pizza and making shit up as we went along”… but then again, though I’ve heard the media talk about that nostalgia in an odd vicarious way, I’ve never heard of any interviews with them about that period of their lives. Maybe they can still remember how unnerving it was (is), to not know if they were (I am) going to succeed or fail, how terrifying and thrilling and crazy it all feels. I’m betting everything I have on the belief that if I bust my butt hard enough on this project I’m passionate about, I’ll somehow come out the other end alive and financially sound.
There’s nothing safe about it. But maybe that’s why we do it. We know it’ll make one hell of an inglamorous nostalgia story on down the line.