Thoughts for a Birthday

Birthday Mousse

Birthday Mousse

Birthdays are funny things.  You know intellectually that you are only one day older than you were the day before. But the flipping of the year – in my case from 62 to 63 – has effects that have nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with your emotions.

In approaching this year’s birthday, I’ve been focused on the fact that life is short.  I’ve written in the past about the need to savor every moment.  However, when you truly recognize that life is short, you think about how that knowledge will change the way you live.

You begin to think about the things that matter, and the things that get in the way of the things that matter. I can only speak from the perspective of someone still in the workplace, but it is easy to find all-too-many instances from the working world that get in the way of your focus on what matters: useless meetings without agenda or purpose, process designed without thought, colleagues looking to you to do their work. I try and push back against these calls on my time whenever I see them. Technology can also be a time suck, both in and out of work.  David Sax, writing in the Revenge of Analog, quotes a time management expert who says, “You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.”  Getting sucked into the distractions of the never-ending clown show currently taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue strikes me as a waste of time.  Thank God that Robert Mueller seems able to focus on the things that matter.

Paul Graham, in an essay on the topic, calls the stuff that life is too short for bullshit, which he describes as the “junk food of experience.”  Amen.

I have found that the things that matter are often focused on — and around — people.  I’m something of an introvert, so I sometimes have to push myself to reach out to others. Fortunately, I have (almost) never regretted the time I find to focus on others:  family, friends, colleagues, people much younger than me, those in need, the exceptionally talented, the wise elders, the total stranger.  It may not seem substantial, but breakfast with a friend can very much matter.

A breakfast birthday

A birthday breakfast from an earlier year

Being intentional in seeking out the things that matter is a good way to avoid the junk food of experience. That also helps in pushing you to do more of what matters right now.  As the new year began, I started a list of “50 things to do in 2018.”  Some were major, others were simple, but they all mattered to me and I wanted to do them before too much time passed.  Reaching right now for the things that matter is another key to living with the knowledge that life is short.

Graham ends his essay with the following:

“Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.”

That sounds about right.  I hope your birthday, whenever it happens this year, gives you a renewed chance to do the things that matter.

More to come…


Writing, Briefly. Writing Well.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

I am a frustrated writer.  Not the kind who needs to work on The Great American Novel (or TGAN)*.  If I wanted to write fiction — great or otherwise — there are plenty of models to follow, such as Flannery O’Connor’s habit of three-hours of writing first thing every morning, or advice to be found in places like Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life  and Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty response (be forewarned) to a young aspiring writer.  No, I want to be able to write essays, blog posts, magazine articles, reports, letters, and speeches that pull people in, make them care about the topic at hand, show a bit of my personality, and only say what needs to be said and nothing more.

If you have similar aspirations, you may not want to take advice about writing from a computer programmer, but let me suggest that Paul Graham — a programmer, writer, and investor who helped co-found Y-Combinator, a new type of startup investment firm — should be the exception.

In a tiny essay entitled Writing, Briefly, Graham lays out his thoughts on the importance of writing.

“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”

I agree.  “Let’s see how it writes” is my favorite instruction to our management team after we’ve talked through a topic.  Writing helps you generate and think through ideas.

So after this opening, Graham proceeds, in one very long sentence, to outline how to write well.  Here’s a flavor to whet your appetite:

“As for how to write well, here’s the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut;

. . .

print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire Graham essay at the link above. It will take less than two minutes. I suspect you’ll think differently about computer programmers — and writing — once you’re finished.

Have a good week.

More to come…


* The very wise — and recently departed — science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting essay on the topic of The Great American Novel, where she posits that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the book that will tell you the most about what is good and what is bad in America, but in the very next essay she writes that “Who cares?” is the correct answer to the question about what is TGAN. (Since this is a digression, I have placed this in an end note at the bottom of my blog post, per Graham’s advice.)


Passion is one universal key to what moves the world forward, yet our passions are the part of us that doesn’t require approval from others.  In fact, the search for prestige through work often gets in the way of our passion.  As Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham notes, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”  I think of passion as that which takes you out of your daily life, that lets you feel closest to your truest self.  Graham describes it as “what doesn’t seem like work to you?” even if it is your life’s work.

These insights led me to consider what we could learn about each other if we truly understood the passions that let us feel closest to our truest self. Passions may be simple things. I can wander around the desks in our part of the office and make guesses about the passions of my colleagues.  Sports cut across gender, geography, and type (Kansas Jayhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Nationals, the Cornell Big Red).  Some passions I know because of conversations through the years (such as our colleague who collects guitars like most of us would collect baseball caps…and yes, I do have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome envy).  We have one colleague who goes over the top with Christmas decorations, and now has a “~320 days until Christmas” sign hanging by her cubicle. Another colleague paints landscapes in his spare time. We have colleagues who take their vacations to help others in developing nations. From the staff spotlights in our office e-newsletter, I know that I can look around and see colleagues who have passions for choral music, extreme sports, food (cooking and eating), and travel.  Other passions are much more ingrained with our jobs, such as the individual who always liked math, turning that passion into programming and research work “that doesn’t feel like work.”  I have a feeling that one colleague who collects old political buttons does so with the professional eye of a collections manager.

What intrigues me is how passions define us, how we can use those passions to help  inspire our work and what passions teach us about each other. Passions are a way we tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. We are a country that needs to understand each other in more profound ways.  Telling stories—and listening to stories—of passions is a way to build that understanding.  We can do it as individuals. We can also do that in our jobs.  And we can do that as a nation. A blogger I read on a regular basis has a passion for story-telling, and he makes the point that telling stories of passions, with passion, changed how we understand the history of what might otherwise be considered a “minor” Founding Father in Alexander Hamilton.  That happened even in the face of hundreds of statistics that tell us that we are losing our connection to our past:

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“Hamilton has had a particular impact on young people. That’s the staggering part. After 200-plus years, Alexander Hamilton is hip with the kids? How did that happen? How did Lin Manuel-Miranda and the cast of Hamilton spark teenagers’ dormant passion for history?

The answer – and it is a universal answer for anyone trying to inspire passion — is simply this: great storytelling. What Miranda did, through brilliant song-writing talent and classic Broadway theatrics, was make Hamilton’s story relatable and rebellious and fun and tragic, all those things that we so often miss in history….So much of the way history is told makes it feel bland — dates and places and all that — and this a common complaint. But we would argue that what hurts history more is the appearance of inevitability. Nothing hurts a story more than inevitability. You know the colonists won the war. You know that Hamilton helped found our nation. You know that he died in a duel.

So how can you make it feel vibrant? How can you tell these stories so that people can see and feel how unlikely an Alexander Hamilton really was, how close the colonists came to losing the Revolutionary War, how impossibly courageous decisions by deeply flawed men who often hated each other, minute by minute, made the United States of America?

This is the challenge – to help people walk among the weeds at Antietam and feel the desperation of normal people, to see the tombstone in Charles Town of the woman who lost seven sons in the Revolutionary War and carry her pain…These are stories of passion. These are stories that, when told well, can still inspire passion….In many ways, what (Lin-Manuel Miranda) did was not new at all. He pulled Hamilton from the staid pages of elementary school history books and made him flesh and blood, reminding us that the Founding Fathers were not featureless men simply destined to start a new nation. They were reckless, brilliant, flawed, brave, hypocritical, and extraordinary dreamers. History, so often, goes for the head. Lin-Manuel Miranda went for the heart.”

Passions big and small make us who we are. Working with passion and telling our stories with passion can help us bring the past into the present for today’s and future generations.

Have a good week.

More to come…