Don’t flex on sleep

by Patrick Haney via Flickr

A student in Ruby Mendicant University tweeted today that he’s sleep-deprived due to overworking himself for Ruby Mendicant University. I hope I’m not partially responsible for his sleep deprivation, but I feel like I could be.

I might have set a bad precedent by throwing sleep on the RMU sacrificial altar, which is unnecessary, and even counterproductive when trying to attract and coach newer students.

In any situation where compromises must be made, you look for a “flex” point. Often in business decisions, you ask whether you flex on time, quality, or cost. Sometimes you can spend more against a hard deadline, or other times it’s better cut corners to save cost.

Often in life, we don’t put enough thought into the question of which part must flex. I didn’t think much about this during my RMU sessions, but I should have.

In my case, I had these things going on in my life: 1) Work, 2) Family, 3) Entertainment, 4) My RMU ambitions, and 5) Sleep.

It was pretty obvious that the first place that should flex is “entertainment”. I can give up TV & RSS feeds for a few weeks. No problem.

But then I found that I was still underwater. So what flexes next? Do I spend less time with family? No, that’s too important. Work? Not feasible.

That leaves sleep, or my RMU ambitions and my predefined definition of “success”. At that point, the seemingly noble choice is to flex on sleep.

The problem is, sleep should be the absolute last place you flex. Working into the wee hours of the morning has repercussions that actually start a domino effect on all the other places.

You’ve now mortgaged your entire next day: I guarantee you’ll diminish your effectiveness at job, your patience and kindness with family, and even the next day’s schoolwork!

I know this because i’ve now made the same mistake twice. Weeks after my last RMU session, I’m just now catching up on sleep and feeling like myself again.

So why did I flex on sleep? Easy: pride.

My pride wouldn’t let me scale back my RMU ambition. Sometimes pride is a good thing, as it causes us to accomplish things we normally wouldn’t. But RMU isn’t about showing what you can accomplish in a short time, it is about accomplishing what you can in the longer term, and staying on the path to mastery (at least that’s my interpretation).

What should I have done? I should have told Greg I was underwater, and scaled back my ambitions. I’m proud of what I accomplished, but the costs were just too large for my level of effort to have been a good long-term investment.

Sleep is too key a component to your success in too many areas of your life to sacrifice it for short-term gain.

Grabbing a shovel

“You’re obviously talented and sharp. But I have no idea how to use you”.

About the third time I heard this from different bosses, I felt like an utter failure. Why would someone as capable as I felt be so woefully misunderstood and underutilized?

As it turns out, it was 100% my fault, and the fix isn’t all that hard.

As I outlined in another post, a coworker shared the secret of his relatively stress-free work environment (the same environment that stressed me to the point of physical illness). He was a free agent. He was only there because he wanted to be. He woke up every day and made the decision to come to work because it was what he wanted to do, not what he had to do.

But I couldn’t just be a free agent. I didn’t know where to start to develop that sense.

As it turns out, a different piece of advice he gave me later was the missing piece, the building block that earns you that free agency. I was going around in circles worrying about how I, a brand-new programmer of less than 6 months, could contribute to our large and intimidating project. He told me this: “I’m looking for people who will just grab a shovel and get to work. If you can do that, great.”

On the marketing side, I’d spent so much time trying to convince people that I had good ideas that I never bothered to just get things done. It didn’t help that the department didn’t have any clue of what we should be getting done. We just knew we needed big ideas that could recoup our ever-expanding millions in losses.

But in my interactions with the development team, they weren’t interested in ideas. They were interested in execution.

This flipped my whole world upside down. Actually, it had been upside down my whole life, and this flipped it right side up. I realized that I could simply “grab a shovel” and start helping the customers by adding small improvements to the code. I would just dig in and add copy changes in one place, fix small things in another, or add features.

I had needed decent e-mail support as a member of the Marketing team for years. So I set about adding it in myself, and had it done in a matter of a couple of weeks. I asked our lead developer, “This was so easy. Why didn’t we have this sooner?”

His reply was a bit coy: “Because we didn’t have you to build it.”

That was the most liberating feeling in the world, because I was proving value to myself and to anyone who cared to pay attention.

The same fear that kept me from achieving at work now holds me back from contributing to open-source projects: I spend so much time being intimidated or hoping someone will tell me what to do that I would rather wait than start trying to contribute any way I can. I still let this happen too often, but from here, I plan to just dig in, find something to fix, and get it done.

In my new day job, I come in every day and try to grab a shovel and get to work. No one has expressed a lack of knowledge of what to “use me for”. Rather, they know that I am going to be digging, so now the only concern is to make sure that I’m doing so in the right place.

The process isn’t complex: I keep a list of the things I want to get done. I check in with my coworkers and tell them what I want to do for the day. At the end of every day, I know how I feel about what I accomplished. There’s no technique, I just know whether I feel good or bad about a day’s efforts, and so I strive to push a little harder so I can feel good at the end of every day.

I also keep my eyes peeled for places I can get things done and just go for it. I spent so much of my life waiting for permission that it’s a bit jarring to just start doing. But here’s what I learned: if you require permission for everything, I can guarantee you’re going to waste your talents and your life waiting.

So now, I try to take a risk, go out on a limb, and do something good without permission once in a while. It gets my heart racing to know there could be some negative reaction, but it seems like those are the times where I get real traction on the most important things.

If I’m hiring someone, I’d rather pick up someone holding a shovel than someone with a sign that says “I have some great ideas about digging if someone will just give me a chance.”

Stop talking about it. Grab a shovel and get to work. I promise you’ll be happier.

Discovering your destiny

I had planned to write about some of the major tech events of the day. Palm is saved! Apple buys more stuff to mothball!

But I’ve started a new job this week, and life lessons are cascading on me such that I can’t help but jot them down. So I’ll ask that you indulge me in a thought.

You need to find and fulfill your destiny. If you think that’s crazy, you really should read on. If you already know yours, I hope you’ll find some value in my story.

I don’t necessarily intend this in a cosmic, religious, or metaphysical sense, though it may very well be in that way that you experience your destiny. For my purposes, I’m defining “destiny” as what you want to have achieved before you die, what you want to be remembered for, or just what you want in general. Joseph Campbell would call it your “bliss”.

At my new job today, I was reminded of a story. It’s an uncomfortable one.

My desperate grasp for control

About seven years ago, I worked as a low-level geek at a large local business. I didn’t know what I wanted, just that I wanted to move up in the world. I’d come pretty far, considering that 18 months earlier I’d been delivering lunches for a living. In my year as a computer technician there, a pretty clear path emerged in front of me. If I wanted to move up, I needed to get into management or operations.

Lo and behold, positions opened up in both at once. There was an operations job and a management job for my team. I wasn’t sure what either entailed, only that I felt I deserved one of the two. I applied for one, only to have it scooped up. I threw my hat in the ring for the other, only to have my coworker slide into that position.

Over the next few months, I seethed. I tried a number of ways to fix my feeling of powerlessness: I complained, whined, and even tried to rally my coworkers into open revolt against the obviously political and corrupt organization I found myself trapped in.

One morning, we were gearing up to go on a department-wide ski trip. I had my snowboard loaded up, and as my colleagues clumped into carloads, I was pulled aside by my coworker-now-boss. I was to report to HR. I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, so it was with a bit of nervousness I walked into the HR director’s office to find my boss and my boss’s boss there.

“What am I supposed to tell my wife?”

The next 15 minutes are still a blur. I was being fired. They tried to be gentle, but I was hot with righteous indignation. How dare they patronize me and say “it’s not a fit”? They threw around words like “bad customer service” and “borderline insubordination”. Even now, I’m flushed with embarrassment as I write this.

So I’d been proven right. I was powerless. What was I supposed to tell my wife? I called her, not just crying; heaving as I apologized to her. How was I going to pay the mortgage? After many months of scrambling for a sense of control, it was all taken from me in one moment. I spent about a month feeling sorry for myself, but I was offered another job; a chance to start over.

At my next job, I was shocked to find the situation play out all over again. I watched for 5 years as coworkers were promoted, and I had my position, title, and pay “redefined” downward. I could feel more layers press down on me. Was this my destiny? To fumble as others succeed? I was smart, capable, and I worked damn hard. Why wasn’t that getting through to these people?

Now, it’s obvious that I was doomed to fail because I didn’t own my destiny, while I watched my coworkers claim theirs. I didn’t know, but even though I shared a workplace, lunches, and conversations with my successful coworkers, they were in a different, parallel universe. In their universe, they had direction and control, while I clung desperately to a job I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finding a compass

Just over a year ago, exasperated, I had a long talk with the person whose career had rocketed while mine stagnated in the same company. Ostensibly, it was about learning to program. But really, I was profoundly unhappy and was hoping he could point to any exit.

That talk set off a chain of events that led to more than a career change; it was a chance for me to grab a compass and choose a direction for my life.

In the year that followed, I watched as the workplace tore itself apart in desperation as the company crumbled and sank. It was the worst work environment I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot at this point. But as my personal course became more clear, this became less relevant.

More recently, I spent several months helping start a company from the ground up with a small group of close friends. With no job title, manager, or ambition, my only responsibility was to create something of value. Although my compass has now led me in a new direction, this experience helped solidify my understanding that it’s me who shapes my destiny.

You can cheat to win, but not to succeed

Today, when I hear people grumble about bosses, politics, and promotions, it is with an odd detachment, and I realize: I’m in a different universe now. I’m not at a job to try to win a promotion, a ribbon, a prize, or raise.

Promotions, raises, and awards are simply how the world reacts to good work. My goal is to produce good work, and match myself with the kind of organization that shares my idea of good work. Trying to “game” this system offers a mere illusion of control, and is a fast track to an unhappy life.

I’m at a job to apply my unique and valuable skills to create things of consequence. If that’s not the deal, we could part ways with no hard feelings, and I’d find a place to create things of value. As it stands, it seems to be working out great. Someday, I hope that place will be my own company, and I’ll apply my skills to my own projects full time.

The magic ingredient

As it is, I’m confident that I’ll succeed in my current role. It was my choice to accept it. Every day, it’s my choice whether I give my best.

And although confidence is the magic ingredient that puts you in the “other universe”, it’s simply a byproduct of doing things. You do something, then you know you can do it. That’s confidence.

I repeat: confidence is essential, and it’s a byproduct of doing.

There is a real lesson here, and in case I’ve couched it too deeply, it is this: If you don’t believe you have a destiny, if you think you’re powerless, life and the universe will prove you right in the most exquisite and painful way.

If you’ve found your destiny, your mission is to fulfill it. Seize it.

Here’s a hint: If you don’t know what your destiny is, creating something is probably a good start. Helping people is a great start. Creating something that helps people? Now we’re talking.

Are your communications morbidly obese?

Much of the reason I’ve been sparsely populating this blog over the past week is that I’ve been laboring on a 10,000-word marketing opus for my day job.

That was about 7,000 words too many, and now it’s a process of “killing babies” until it gets there.

It doesn’t matter whether you write for a living every day or not; the fact is that everyone is a writer, and more so if you’re in marketing.

When you’re in high school, writing assignments are padded to reach a certain word count. After high school though, overly verbose writing is the hallmark of the lazy. George Orwell’s rule is, “If you can cut a word out, always cut it out.”

This goes for emails, blog posts, and especially ad copy: you can take the easy way out and write so much that you wind up diluting your original message, or you can spend time trimming fat and condensing it into something potent.

How do you know if your communication is overweight? I use these guidelines:

  1. Did you say everything you wanted to? Great, but that’s exactly twice as long as it should be.
  2. Think it should stay? Delete it first, and see if you miss it. Chances are, you won’t.
  3. Stop thinking about what you want to say, and start thinking about what you want to get across.

No one likes cutting up their own communication, it’s time-consuming and ego-deflating. But, much like sharpening a pencil (or losing 500 pounds), you won’t miss what you lose and you’ll be much happier with the result.

Silence is golden. Seriously, shut up.

So many of our problems as marketers and (and as coworkers, and as spouses…) stem from just being too vocal.

Here’s a tip: Are you “endearingly opinionated”? That means you’ve actually got a big mouth and are in constant, mortal danger of destroying your career and relationships (trust me on this one).

But there’s help! This lesson was driven home to me today when I found out that Metallica had a new album.

Remember Metallica? They’re the band that whined their way into cultural irrelevance. Instead of sitting back and seeing where the “digital revolution” was leading, they reacted immediately and harshly, passing judgment (literally) on those that dared reach into the candy bowl labeled “OMG FREE MUSIC”.

In one PR blunder, one to go into history, they were able to turn their enormous success into a tremendous amount of anti-Metallica fervor. Suddenly, fans and casual observers alike watched in delight as the band started to tear itself apart (on camera!), culminating in the loathsome musical atrocity St. Anger.

Metallica pissed off the entire Internet. There’s no coming back from that, right?

But today, I heard something remarkable: I heard samples from Metallica’s new release, and it didn’t suck. It specifically did not suck.

And you know what? I was glad for them. Glad? I’d assumed there was no end to the well of schadenfreude I had reserved for them. But I found myself glad to see them succeed. I’m not the only one; mark my words, you’ll see a surprising pro-Metallica sentiment arise in the next few weeks.

Rather than chalk that up to our generation’s short attention span, I hope this underscores the forgiving nature of people, even among the digital masses.

More significantly, it underscores the importance of just shutting up and letting a product speak. Where was the massive marketing campaign? The self-indulgent documentary? The angry tirades and lawsuits following its early release?

Whether architected this way or a lucky coincidence, the plan is genius in its execution. By not saying anything, they let community members tell each other about the quality of the album, rather than generating resistance by offering cringe-inducing promises that the band “is sorry” and “has returned to form”. Good show.

The lesson is: not every problem requires a full mea culpa. Often, silently getting your act together is the most effective way to repair a tarnished reputation. Except for your wife. Always, always apologize to her.