I was originally tempted to start with “this month was just a blur” and I then caught myself: yes, and… It was also full of highlights.
By far, the best moment was a casual get-together two weeks ago. At this turnpoint in my life, I wanted to be with some of my favorite people around the time of my birthday. So I made it happen, and I feel grateful for all who were present. Alas, I did not have neither bandwidth, time nor energy to organize a suitable momentous celebration, so I invoked “brunch” as pretext and we made happy with a low-key breakfast at home.
Only a week later, I would learn from Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering that with only a few modest adjustments, I could have made this event feel as memorable and special for my guests as it was for me.
Segue—I strongly recommend reading this book: it is well-written, actionable and thought-provoking. It also connects to a part of me: from my late twenties to my mid-thirties, approximately from the time when I had enough spending money to the time I started therapy for my depression, I was hosting events and parties on a regular basis. My friends and acquaintances knew my events as a place to meet new people, eat and drink well, and generally feel “alive”. I never was very structured about it, and all my skills had been developed rather intuitively, by trial and error but limited self-reflection. At the time, I did not know hosting was a skill, and I did not know anyone to learn from. Then, this month, I read Priya Parker’s book and two things happened: I felt validated by reading from a professional which things I knew were important and already doing right at the time; and I learned a language to talk about the other things that also need attention and that I was oblivious about. This was an eye opener.
One such thing is that the success of a gathering hinges on focus and specialization: there should be one purpose, and it should imbue the participants.
Instead, last month, I gathered my friends for too many reasons: for them to meet each other; to low-key celebrate a birthday (all the while giving conflicting signals ahead of time that I do not find birthdays worth celebrating, as there are so many more opportunities to celebrate non-anniversaries too), to mark a milestone in my house project, and to honor the visit of a dear friend from abroad. To me, all these things were worth gathering for; but for the event to be more memorable, I should have picked just one and shape our time together accordingly. (Lesson learned.)
Another thing connects to the reason why I have hosted less events in the last six years. One of the first things my therapist taught me then is that I do not have enough “energy budget” in my life to both host events myself and enjoy my relationships. By focusing too much on hosting, namely the entertainment of my guests, I consume all the energy I have available and there is little remaining to present myself authentically and empathically to others. I become a passenger to my actions and cannot connect to the other participants any more.
Since then, but before I read Priya Parker’s book, I have consciously erred in the opposite direction. I did facilitate some gatherings, but also kept my own investment minimal, instead counting on the interest and extroversion of certain guests to propel gatherings forward.
This approach was not principled and created a pitfall. Last month, I simply forgot to ensure the participants were properly introduced to each other. And that day, none of the participants was suitably extroverted to make that step happen effectively without me either. Luckily the event was not awkward, but we kept the conversation more quiet and superficial than it could have been. The lesson for me here, and one I got from this month’s first read, is to explicitly request help with event organization, including facilitating certain social steps.
As the saying goes, “to walk fast, walk alone; to walk far, walk together.”
For folk reading along from previous episodes, the house project is properly in-flight. By the time you are reading this, what makes the very essence of a house—its exterior walls—are getting dismantled at my address. Can it still be called a house if it does not have walls? Is there still a forest when the trees have burnt down and only the seeds remain underground?
This will be the philosophical question I will need to ponder for the foreseeable future, from the cozy ten-or-so square meters (approx. 110 square feet) where I have crammed most of my belongings for the duration of the project. I am writing this text from the comfort of my desk, but under my bed and less than two meters from everything I might need for the next six months.
It sounds small, but it works.
One key to make it work was to apply the sound principles described in Spaceship You: I was careful to arrange furniture to create separate “stations”, each with its sanctified boundaries, and I have learned to keep items tidily restricted to their home station. Even though I believe was already “doing” sleep properly before my move, the addition of a daylight lamp for my office plant, that turns on every morning at 7.30, has created additional consistency in my biorhythm and freed up extra active time.
The other key was simply to spend more time outdoors. A year ago, I would not have believed if someone told me I would be outside nearly every day and even enjoy it. Things happen.
One thing that came unexpectedly since the move, but which was suggested in Spaceship You, is an urge to dedicate time for learning.
The reason why I call it unexpected is that I always believed I was a continuous learner, thus without a need for dedicated learning time. Additionally, I felt I had been working so intensely during the last year, including through learning deep knowledge and new practical skills, that I would probably benefit from a few weeks—or even months—of downtime, with less thinking and also less learning. Yet, in the last few weeks, the constant focus of deep work and the stress of my life changes started to subside, and I started to want to learn anew, and better.
Another thing that came through self-reflection is that my previous work projects were hyper-focused in one area, and that this focus came at the cost of giving up on my interests in other areas. I dedicated the last fifteen years of my life to an in-depth exploration of the most difficult problems in computer science—e.g. naming things, cache invalidation, off-by-one errors, data locality, access latency. The more money I made exploring these topics and their interactions in systems, the less I chose to investigate other interests. This includes both old interests—e.g. regional cultural differences, linguistics—and new: finance, incentive systems, organizational hygiene, business ethics, marketing and sales.
A keystone moment this month happened when I encountered this question: “do you prefer solving problems or building a product?”
I am being paid handsomely to solve problems, but one thing is sure, as clearly today as it was already ten years ago: I am so much better at building products. My intrinsic motivation, if there is one, is to optimize the experience of a user (or customer) approaching my project from the outset. Sure, I find the internal quality of products essential, but to me quality is essential because it is what underlies suitability for purpose in the eye of users. My driver is suitability, and sometimes user delight can be achieved with just 80/20 technology and instead a serious investment in stellar documentation, support and integrations. I like clever technology, but only to the extent cleverness reduces the implementation effort and liberates my time to work on experiences instead.
(Incidentally, I had built that point as one of the central arguments of my doctoral thesis, more than ten years ago. Yet, at the time, I had not realized it was as a driving factor of my work in other endeavors too. Have I already mentioned I am largely oblivious to the most important features of my life, until much later?)
A side effect of my subvert interest in product building, over the last few years, was internalizing how much dependent a project’s success is on a team that combines the various required skills. The more business there is to run, the less chance that a single person can deliver properly in all the areas that need attention.
Again, all the above talk about “product building” is a recent realization. Recent, as in, a few weeks fresh. The interest was always there, but only at a subconscious level. Nonetheless, that interest pushed me to develop strong opinions about various areas of running a project. Co-workers saw me increasingly often stick my neck out of the proverbial woods to meddle^W explain my views on how to develop an ambitious roadmap while keeping tactics practical and low-key, how to structure documentation for diverse audiences, how to create a layered narrative to feather adoption, how to onboard new team members, which roadblocks to focus on first, etc.—all the while rumbling when non-optimal choices were being made and whining when my suggestions, as valuable as they were, were neither taken up on nor rewarded.
Not knowing what I did not know (even thought it was staring at me in the face all along, I just did not see it), I tried to find insights in leadership science. So I avidly consumed a large volume of literature from the Harvard Business Review, followed by a constellation of works from both online and paper authors.
Then, four things happened.
One is that I learned a thing or two about leadership. I have gobbled up historical perspectives (e.g. evolution of power structures over the ages); geographical variations (e.g. differences in leadership structures across cultures); sector variations (tech vs manufacturing vs services, etc); and quite importantly, the fundamental difference between leadership and management.
The second thing that happened is that I started seeing patterns of leadership around me, and detect quite a few leadership failures with momentous consequences. I would dare say that the tech industry is much less meticulous about good leadership than many other sectors with a longer history. There is a perverse incentive at work: good leaders choose to operate where good leadership is appreciated, and tech people do not know how to do and recognize good leadership because they largely have not experienced it before; and so the two communities (good leaders, tech people) remain at a distance. Tragic.
The third thing is that I realized that leadership science is mostly descriptive, somewhat predictive, but not prescriptive. There is nearly nothing recorded about leadership that can teach someone to become a good leader. Reading (or watching, or listening) about leadership is like watching performances at the Olympic Games; it does not teach one how to become an athlete. Listening to leaders talk about leadership to each other (e.g. to share experience, asking for advice) does not commonly lead to actions that increase the impact of their leadership. In short, leadership as a learnable skill is an art more than a science.
The fourth thing is my other realization: that leadership is merely a mean to an end. A project exists from a goal, some substance and an audience, and leadership merely provides it with momentum and resilience. The former can exist without the latter (albeit inefficiently), but the converse is not true.
At the end of this series of realizations, I came to a conclusion: a successful project’s foundation is one or more people doing a thing together, and then when the time comes to make the thing bigger or more durable, leadership emerges as a vehicle to achieve that, and then the group might choose to specialize skills and push more specific leadership responsibilities into fewer hands. These still remain service hands though (even though some folk forget that).
And so now when I read online adverts about a self-proclaimed CEO looking to hire “their first technical person”, I laugh: I just see a cart before a horse, and some unspoken questions about the wisdom to start becoming the “doer” for just half (or less) of the equity.
Another recommended read from this month, topical to the above, is Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. It focuses on vulnerability, and the various ways effective leadership emerges from it. This, too, was an eye opener.
It will take me a while to fully process what this book aims to teach me; one thing it helped me figure is a stumbling block on the way to my future. So big I even felt compelled to call multiple friends and mentors for advice.
In a nutshell: I still feel resentful.
This particular story starts a long time ago, way before the year 2000. The things I do well now, they were not fashionable or popular at the time. While, as a teenager, I saw and studied closely the transformative potential of the mechanization of human thought, others were seeing an opportunity cost, distance from “fun”, inability to form relationships and a lack of investment in, at the time, more established careers such as medicine or mechanical engineering. This was a long sentence to say I was a nerd and, like others like me, I was severely shunned for it. The acidity directed my way at the time was exacerbated by what I now understand was envy: I was punished both for failing at social norms (mainly, but not exclusively, stemming from my hyper-focus on my hobbies) and also for performing well but without apparent effort on our shared study goals.
(What I failed to verbalize at the time—what I now know to call personal legibility—is that my study performance was in fact the result of serious effort, compounded by lateral thinking stimulated by my non-standard interests. My mistake was to make it look effortless.)
From my vantage point, the tables have turned. What wasn’t cool is now profitable, and being friend with the nerd is now useful.
Yet, to this day, I still find it hard to believe that the next person who asks me how to hitch their life to the bandwagon of the “tech industry” wouldn’t have been the person who, more than 25 years ago, would torment the likes of me for not adopting mainstream interests. My distrust is particularly strong when the person I am facing does not have a legible pedigree of having been ostracized themselves already (although any kind of ostracization will do here—I empathize with race-based or sexuality-based discrimination just as well as bad life experiences stemming from technological deviance).
Brené Brown, in her book, advises that a key feature of good leadership is kindness. How can I ever be kind to “normies?”
Folk, bullying creates lifelong psychological scars. This is no joke.
On a lighter note, the last month was also themed around snowboarding.
The proximate story, albeit exciting for me, is short: a few weeks of downtime also helped me realize I like snowboarding a lot, that it is a legitimate hobby, and that I was doing my happiness a disfavor by not optimizing a bit for it. After twenty years of renting crummy snowboarding equipment every winter, I acquired my own good (pun intended) hardware: Goodboards Wooden (picture above, it really looks and feels like a painted floor board) and CLEW bindings. I went to try them out yesterday on the slopes, and I’m rather happy. Both are designed and made in the EU, which also makes me a little bit extra proud and happy.
Then there is another side to this story, which I didn’t expect and still keeps me thinking to this day. That was the process I used to make my choices.
The shoes (three years ago) were the easiest: I picked the only pair that fit my feet. The bindings were also easy: there are more-or-less just four major types of bindings in the market this year, and CLEW’s were clearly the most convenient. When the optimization function has just one variable or a clear minimum, I come to my decisions quickly.
The snowboard was a different matter entirely. On the one hand, it would be easy to just say that since I only had experience with crummy rental equipment, anything else would be a step up and so any choice would result in excess enjoyment. So it could be an easy story. On the other hand, the reality is that I am now decently skilled despite the crummy equipment, or even perhaps thanks to its middle-of-the-road design. This is why I was in the market for something “generic”, i.e. something that offered me a little bit of everything, but also does it well.
This led me to interesting conversations with salespeople.
One thing I learned is that the higher level (higher spend) snowboarders tend to specialize: speed, freeriding, freestyling, etc. For each specialty, there is high-end equipment with different characteristics. Certain brands even cater exclusively to certain styles. So the financial success of the salesperson hinges on categorizing the customer and pitching the specialized product most suited to their particular needs. Conversely, in this current high-skill-snowboarders-are-specialists trend, a non-specialized person is perceived as not-yet-skilled, and thus not particularly interested in quality equipment. My situation was thus incompatible with the sales script, and it was funny to see these salespeople confused and improvise their sales pitch just for me.
One salesperson chose to pitch me the equipment that he personally preferred to use, and emphasized generic use cases (e.g. carving on icy snow) where this equipment did exceptionally well. I stretched this conversation by asking about all the other brands he was selling and what they were good for. The salesperson subsequently spent two hours sharing his knowledge of his products, and mentioned his pleasure at spending a lull in his calendar with a visibly curious customer.
Another salesperson taught me the decision tree that he personally uses (or recommends) to make a choice, then attempted to meticulously walk me through questions that would help me narrow down what my preferences should be. It was all very technical. I could see he had a system, which as the oldest snowboard reseller in the Netherlands was probably stemming from experience and continued business success.
The thing both these folk did not know is that I already had spent two weeks absorbing all the online knowledge about current products and brands, and all the guides on how to make a choice. So their stories were not new to me. My online study had left me indecisive, and their sales pitch did not provide new insights, and so they did not sell to me.
Then, I showed up in my last shop, and it took twenty minutes of wandering around before an employee went to fetch the “snowboard expert” who had isolated themselves behind a computer screen, to help me. This person’s performance as salesperson was initially abysmal: he asked me the most basic questions then laid down a few generic products on the floor to see, with minimal explanation. (I had already seen them all by then.) He did not seem particularly interested in making a sale that day.
Then, something magical happened. Curious about his lack of engagement, I asked him what he liked about his job as a snowboard salesrep. This is where his eyes brightened up. He then told me about how he gets invited to trade shows in the mountains; where different brands present their product lineup for the next year; and where the store owners and personnel from multiple countries get to try the equipment. He told me about the sales conversations with the manufacturers. He told me about the wholesale procurement process. He taught me about the “behind the scenes” of his work. I ate it all up! (and it put a big smile on my face. I’ll explore that later.)
He also told me about a vote that the store owners/personnel hold every year, on the most unique and creative board designs. He showed me the product that won this year’s contest. He then shared his disappointment that his own favorite did not get selected. I asked him about why. He explained that his favorite was an excellent product technically, but it wasn’t as “flashy” or “funny” as the other contenders, and did not stand out as a specialized product. Its environmentally sustainable manufacturing process drove its price slightly higher than functionally equivalent models from other brands. Also it is a European brand, so not as visible internationally as the US American contenders yet.
I would never have expected how intensely I would identify with a product before. The feeling had been totally unknown to me, and yet it was undeniable. Like some other things in life, “you know it when you know it”.
In the end, I acquired a snowboard and some better understanding of how to work more effectively with a salesperson. I had already started to explore sales conversations last month (story for another time), and I plan to explore this more in the next year.
Recommendations for this month: