Four years ago, in a dark New York City basement apartment, above the boiler room, beside the garbage room, I found myself sobbing in my then-girlfriend's arms. At that moment, more than anything in the world, I needed someone to just hold me and tell me that everything was going to be alright. My life felt like it was unravelling. Work had become this tarpit in which I found myself fighting to survive. The thing which I loved the most had somehow turned on me - had betrayed me. My passions had become a prison of responsibility, fortified by my own ineptitude and my feelings of shame.
Thankfully, my life has improved very much in the last few years. My passion burns brightly once again and I see most days as a gift. In fact, I rarely think back to that period of trepidation and angst. I only reflect upon it now having just finished reading "Nerd Life Balance: The Art Of Open Sourcing Your Life" by Nick Floyd.
This book struct a chord with me because, like me - like many of us - Nick rode his passions into a hole; both metaphorically and - falling asleep at the wheel after pulling an all-nighter - almost literally. From his place of darkness, Nick was able to step back and question what it meant to live a successful and fulfilling life. A Nerd Life Balance is his signaling flare - his challenge to us that we don't just have to survive - that we can thrive. That we can be awesome. And that we can do so be simply being and sharing more of ourselves.
It's hard to articulate exactly what the book is all about. As I was reading it, I kept thinking back to one of my favorite authors, Robert Fulghum (It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten). Like Fulghum, Floyd paints a picture with both explicit insights and familiar parables. The value of the book is almost not in the message itself but, rather, in how the message makes you take pause and think about your own life and the choices you make on a daily basis.
Part of me wants to sum it up with the phrase, "Let your freak flag fly!".
But, I also can't help but think back to the movie Akeelah And The Bee in which Akeelah reads a portion of this Marianne Williamson quote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
That last bit - that "we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same" - that's what I kept hearing in my own head when Floyd would talk about the infectious nature of passion:
Enthusiasm is infectious. Passion is magnetic. We call it charisma and we assign it to a subset of humanity. We think that you have to be a great speaker or an extrovert to have that magical attribute but the fact is that charisma is simply the ability to comunicate your passion.
The amazingly cool thing about passion is that it does not have to have a reason; it's its own reason.
This idea is often misunderstood as: "you're saying think about work all the time" or "I should bring work home and push other stuff to the side?" Not at all! I'm simply pointing out that your inner nerd components, whether it's code, bikes, writing, weight lifting or whatever, are part of you; they should be expressed and shared. It will inherently be part of what you love to do and talk about.
You see your passion is a virus and you are patient zero. Though this virus is vastly different from any other virus in the world and it is distinct and unique. You are the only one who can "carry" it and when it infects someone else it mutates to their own creative thing and they then become patient zero.
It's easy for me to be in a room full of engineers and talk about my passions. But, beyond that, I do tend to compartmentalize. People know that I love programming because I write about it a lot. But, I don't necessarily talk about it a lot. Certainly not with those people that I spend the most time with. I should try to find ways to share that joy and enthusiasm. Perhaps I can start by just verbalizing the engineering conversation that I'm having in my head all the time.
It's funny, when I was younger and very much bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I actually felt bad talking about programming. Not because I was ashamed or embarrassed; but, rather, because I was trying to protect others. I knew that I was blessed to have found my calling; that I was lucky to know what it was that I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And, I knew that many people didn't have that luxury. So, I avoided talking about programming because I didn't want to rub my passion in other people's faces.
In retrospect, perhaps that was doing a disservice. Instead of keeping my passions to myself, perhaps I could have found ways to get others excited. Perhaps I could have found ways to give others the permission to follow their own passions and to demand more from their own life.
Balance - in whatever that means to you - is not easy to achieve. And, it's not a solve-once kind of problem. It's an ongoing process that requires continual recalibration and reflection. A Nerd Life Balance reminds us to take stock of our situation; to question our assumptions; to reconsider our boundaries; and to, above all, truly be ourselves.
Looks like a good book I'll have to pick up. In my quest for better leadership, I've also been reading books that are really about self-internalization and understanding one's makeup and traits.
One other quote that I really wanted to share that keeps sticking in my mind:
> The best ideas are toxic without execution.
> They can consume you and spit you out. Un-executed ideas will
> eat up your mental capital before you know it and discourage you
> from ever trying to do anything again. Decide early on if you idea
> is worth doing, then do it if it is. You could just drop the idea of ideas
> all together and just start doing projects. Thinking and being more
> concrete will act as a catalyst to your project war machine. (Page 67)
I totally get this! I can't tell you how many not-executed and half-executed ideas I have bouncing around in my head. Each of them has a weird effect on my mental state. They either feeling overwhelming, like they're never going to get done; or, they make me feel like I can't get my act together and actually motivate.
I wish I took more things to completion by keeping my to-do list a bit shorter.
... on understanding one's "makeup and traits", that's really great. I am an introvert by nature. And half of me thinks that such a nature will always hold me back from certain roles, especially in the leadership arena. I would like to change that mindset; but, I struggle to find the path towards change.
Also, one other quote that had me laughing in how accurately is describes my every day:
> If you find yourself sandwiching your days between energy drinks
> and melatonin tablets you might want to stop and check what "winning"
> really looks like to you because you might simply be stuck in a tight loop
> and eventually you're going to run out of memory and drop dead.
> (Page 97)
When I read this, I had the classic John Malkovich moment, "GET OUT OF MY HEAD!" :D Though, in all fairness, I get a good amount of sleep. I just can't figure out how to shut my brain off at night. I tend to get fixated on one thought. I need lots of white-noise and melatonin in order to calm the machinery.
I'm not so sure. All this "let your freak flag fly and it gives other people permission to do the same" might be no more than the product of a seriously disrupted culture. There's nothing that says a quieter, stabler state of mind is not better -- for us, for our children, for the planet and for the future.
A b*lls to the wall attitude emerged from the post WWII era with a rush of industry and unlimited supply of fuel. Hedonism fed on hedonism, infecting the character of the tech community at the now-forgotten US Festival, where Apple Computers were launched as the spiritual love child of Woodstock.
For every freak flag flying, a freak is laying in the gutter, burned out, forgotten, cast out because his freak was not accepted. It might be accepted for the duration of the party, but in the hung-over, sober light of day, only those with the skills, connections and good luck to have jobs get to live in the million dollar Silicon Valley homes. The rest run WordPress sites for shady professionals who demand BlackHat SEO to put their sites at the top of Google, where "they're rules don't apply to us."
Don't convince yourself that world was shut down with Penguin 4.whatever.
I'm just saying, a less pretentious, less inebriated, less seeking life seems within reach, and letting the freak flag fly might not benefit the world nearly as much as we like to pretend.
Thanks for posting this Ben. It was helpful today.
Another great book review, and another book to add to my list! Thanks, Ben! As I was reading your comments, especially the ones about sleeping, I got to thinking about the FitBit and wondering if you'd heard much about them? It has a feature where you can monitor your sleeping, and it is awesome! I must admit, I was skeptical at first. But since I've been wearing mine at night, I've been trying to keep track of when I wake up and when I dream, etc., it seems to be right on. It keeps track of light sleep stages, deep sleep stages, R.E.M. sleep, and wake times. I've really enjoyed mine. I just thought I'd mention that. Thanks for the really interesting book review!
I don't see it as a disrupted culture. I don't really see it as a commentary on culture at all - only on one's self-image and self-actualization. There's no guarantee that you will always be accepted for who you are -- to know that, one usually need only look at their own family :P I half-jest; but, my own family gives me much grief about my introverted behavior and my desire to be the first one to leave the party every time. But hey, that's just how I am - that's the me I need to be.
I think you need to give people more credit. Being one's self is not the same as living a hedonistic, inebriated life-style.
I actually did try the FitBit sleeping mode stuff once. I think the problem is that when I'm falling asleep, I tend to lie very still. So, when I looked at the charts, it said I fell asleep in mere minutes; though, I knew from the clock that this was not the case.
For now, I'm just loving that Melatonin is working for me :D