You are not your company

Facebook hoodieI’ve done a lot of thinking in the past about how a person carves up their identity, and most of the time I’m comfortable with a certain level of tribalism.

In fact, my partner Charles and I have worked very hard over the last few years to subjugate our public identities (AKA “personal brands”) during conference talks and blog posts to that of The Frontside, for good reason. We have a shared goal that is larger than either of us, and we want an umbrella that is larger than us to protect that goal. (The goal itself is a topic for another day.)

So why would I have a problem with my employees telling people “I’m a Frontsider”? Or with a gaggle of employees of Cool Startup X all decked out in company swag huddled together at a tech event? Or how about when someone drops the name of their workplace with all the subtlety of James Bond’s self-introduction?

“I work at GitHub. The GitHub.”

Why would that make me uncomfortable? Because I don’t believe a company is an appropriate or safe place to house any significant portion of your identity.

You just have to ask one question: What is the exchange happening here? By tying your identity to your company…

You get: A sense of belonging, and perhaps some prestige if the company is known.

They get: An increased sense of importance and priority to your work life, a lower likelihood you’ll leave for any reason, and a staunch defender of the company… all without having to pay you more.

Basically I get more “employee per dollar” if you’re willing to identify with my company.

I don’t think people realize the exchange that’s happening here. Hell, I’m an owner of my company and I don’t like the exchange rate on tying it to my personal identity. And I’m expressly not a fan of companies using psychology to extract more value from employees without compensating them.

Charles and I are building a Brand (yes, I know, ugh) that is expected to stand in for a set of goals and values, and are willing to attach much of our public work to that Brand intentionally. But that is very different than tying it to our own personal identities.

Like us, you already tie a lot of things to your company: your time, your daily personal associations, and your best work. That’s the agreed-upon exchange when you take a job. I strongly recommend to my employees and to those who will hear me to not give up a big ol’ chunk of your identity in that deal without careful consideration.

Benji’s priority box

Last week, I lost a close friend to cancer. Benji Edmund was the best of us: Kind, cheerful, inclusive, and irrepressible.

He was a nerd of nerds: he fully owned and embraced the things that made him different, and did them better than most of us. He also embraced the things that made others different, and brought people together from every area. It was no surprise to me to see a huge group of people at his funeral, each touched by him in some way.

All this week, I’ve really resisted the urge to analyze his life and try to draw lessons from it, because I mostly just want to be sad and hurt, to wallow in the unfairness of losing him.

But after seeing his family and friends selflessly share what they learned from him, I feel compelled to point out some of the ways Benji was so special to me.

Living without regret

It’d take much more than a single blog post to describe the ways he inspired and influenced me, so I’ll focus on one or two things that are on my heart.

At his funeral, people shared what they admired about Benji, things I thought perhaps only I’d noticed. He had a genuine confidence that came not from lack of fear, but from understanding that he could accomplish anything if he simply never gave up. In the 8 years I’ve known him, I’ve never, ever seen him give up or back down from an intimidating task.

What struck me most, though, was that after he learned that the treatments weren’t working, he looked at his life and declared he was happy with the result. He said he was proud of his family, proud of his career, proud of his hobbies, and wished only that he’d had more time to keep doing what he’d been doing.

How many of us can say that? How many of us are so contented that if the worst happened, we could say we lived without regret?

Benji’s priorities

His peace of mind was no accident. Ultimately, Benji’s greatest tool in living a happy, fulfilled life was his perfectly clear set of priorities, and his rigor in defending them.

Benji’s family always came first. He was like a superdad. Being present for his family was never a question, and there was never any doubt that his wife Heidi and kids came first. He didn’t wear a badge saying this, and never uttered the phrase “my family comes first”, but everyone knew where he stood.

Although Benji’s work took a permanent backseat to his family, he always rose to the top and excelled at every career turn. He always managed to pick a professional challenge that was just outside his grasp, and was willing to leap from a place of comfort, trusting that he’d somehow make it to the other side. He took genuine joy in his work, and everyone that worked with him remembers him as the “glue” that united everyone. At a relatively young age, he became highly sought after for anything ops and devops related.

Benji’s hobbies were equally impressive. If he was into it, he was really into it. He also seemed to prefer hobbies that he could share with other people. Video games, brewing beer, movies, music… he was never content to keep them to himself. He preferred relationships and experiences to “stuff”, trotting the globe with friends and family while still driving his same busted old Ford Focus the entire time I knew him.

Defending his priorities

It’s not enough to know your priorities, you have to defend them. And Benji defended his vigorously.

Benji’s family-first philosophy, to the 25-year-old version of me, seemed weird. He would frequently turn down offers to go hang out, he wanted to go straight home to his wife (and later, his kids). If we wanted to do something, we were welcome to come over and spend time with his family.

At the time this was hard to understand. But with hindsight, it was a master class in understanding and defending your priorities.

Benji’s boss, the CEO of Instructure, spoke at his funeral and told his story of recruiting Benji. It took months, because he absolutely would not jump over to this new startup until they had health and life insurance benefits buttoned up. He simply would not make that sacrifice. I’m sure this seemed inconvenient or even odd to the team there.

But for Benji, this was a simple decision, because he took his priority list, put a family requirement up against a work requirement, and knew which one would win.

Shaking the box

Clay Christensen, in How Will You Measure Your Life, talks about understanding long-term vs. short-term gains in your personal life. The benefits from sacrifices on behalf of your family can take years or even decades to come to fruition. Work and other pressures can offer immediate benefit and immediate consequence.

So when it’s time to look at our priorities, we often sacrifice these long term benefits for our family, knowing they will understand. Instead, we often choose short term gains to placate the people who won’t understand (a boss, for example).

I imagine priorities like this: imagine writing every thing that is important to you on a slip of paper. You probably have a sense of their order, and after ordering them, they go into a box.

However, there are 2 unavoidable challenges for your priority box. First, over the course of time, more things will become important to you, and you’ll start adding more slips of paper. Second, at random intervals, life will come and shake up your box. You can’t prevent this, nor can you predict when it will happen.

So the construction of this box is of utmost importance. But most of us just leave it the way it is, a simple box containing all the stuff we care about, and the thing that seems most important at any given time is plucked out and given our time and attention.

What was different about Benji’s priority box

Benji, however, built compartments into his box, keeping his priorities from being mixed up. Benji took great care with the construction of his box. He recognized it for what it was: the container for all that he cherishes and the only tool he has to protect his most limited resource: his time.

So yes, more pieces of paper were slipped in, and life came and shook his box with all its might. But Benji never had any doubts about which activities got the bulk of his time and attention, because they rested in their appropriate compartments.

It’s shocking to me that Benji understood his long-term priorities at such a young age. He’d set up his hierarchy pretty much by the time he’d graduated high school. He married his high school sweetheart, placed her at the top of his list, and never, ever took her (or the rest of his family) down.

I can say with some confidence that this was Benji’s formula for a regret-free existence.

I’m not proud of my priority box (yet)

My box is shoddily constructed at the moment. I have a lot of mixed-up priorities, coming in faster than I can handle them, and little sense of how to put them in order. But I now have a model to follow for choosing how to build my compartments and protect the things that I cherish the most.

I can’t express in words how broken my heart is right now. My heart hurts for my loss, for the pain his family is in, the long road they have ahead, for the loss the world experienced by losing him. But I can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that Benji truly lived his life, with kindness and on his own terms.

I love you forever, Benji. I miss you terribly. Thank you for reminding me to live and love without regret.

What’s so great about getting things done?

Each of these contains months- or years-old tasks that now exist solely to mock me

One of the fundamental principles of marketing is to sell relief from pain. So it’s no surprise that Getting Things Done has become a perennial phenomenon.

It offers the promise of freedom from the feeling of being buried beneath a task list that grows faster than you can cut it down.

It’s a nearly ubiquitous pain point. We have more things to do than we can keep track of, let ourselves get overwhelmed, and give up before accomplishing our goals.

And for its adherents, GTD seems to deliver. They are finally able to climb up out of their to-do-list deficits, feel less overwhelmed, and regain a sense of control over their work.

As for me, I could never finish the book. Maybe it’s the corporate-speak delivery, or more likely my own life situation, but I just can’t seem to get into it. I have studied it through vicarious means, via podcasts, cheat sheets, tutorials, etc.

Organizational systems are overrated. There, I said it.

Every organizational tool, system, or book I have tried has either failed me or I have failed it. The tools on paper, computer, and smartphone I’ve used comprise an elephant graveyard of dashed hopes.

My track record over the past 15 years proves this out, from Franklin Planners, to notepads, to desktop software, to writing my own pomodoro-based todo web app, to GTD, only to expose my own lack of discipline by giving up and going back to my old ways.

I ran through the OmniFocus tutorials and implemented the whole system: setting up contexts, projects, assigning next actions, toggling context based on my location, and it all seemed great, but it just didn’t click for me. I just couldn’t get emotionally invested in the reward cycle for accomplishing stuff past a month or two in GTD or any other system.

And yet, my life is not an aimless train wreck of unaccomplished goals. So what gives?

I’m a bit concerned about the “things” part of GTD.

I’ve now spent the last several months doing nothing but getting things done. Tasks checked, issues closed, code written, yaks shaved, and I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished in that time.

But for all the stimulation I got from this time of hyper-productivity, I’ve also created a tremendous emotional debt by ignoring friends and family, and have been blind to other opportunities in my life. I’ve managed to become so dependent on the mental “cookie” I’m awarded for productivity that I’ve forgotten to be present for the rest of my life.

It’s ironic that many of the most important activities in our life don’t seem to fit in our todo list backlogs. Things like truly listening to a friend, helping out with the dishes, or taking time to build a lego fortress with your kiddo don’t stack up against “call Janet to get forecast numbers for Q3”

Short-term vs. long-term optimization

Life is about a lot more than the buzz we get from short-term accomplishment, yet we tend to torture ourselves over leaving near-term tasks unchecked. Or, we pat ourselves on the back for all the things we accomplish within a given workday, not realizing the decades-long effects of what we’re ignoring in favor of these near-term goals.

Clay Christensen explains better than I could about this optimization for “near term” versus the “long term” (check out the video at the end of this post).

Achievement = purpose + effort

I believe people are capable of profound productivity when driven by a sense of purpose and desire. For me, when I’m in “purpose mode”, things are crystal clear, and I’ll plow through uncertainty and obstacles to accomplish something. But often in my work, I shuffle around and pick at things without feeling like I am making progress.

To me, GTD is too often about trying to reduce the amount of perceived effort to accomplish things we don’t necessarily care about. I can take these things I’m shuffling around, apply GTD, and suddenly have a plan of action to accomplish this thing I don’t feel like doing.

But long-term, meaningful achievement means directing your effort to things that are truly connected to your own sense of purpose.

For me, the solution has been to figure out how to go back to the root and care about what I’m doing. Sometimes that means crumpling up the work I’ve done on things I don’t care about to start from scratch on something I do.

Overcoming overwhelm (without neat little boxes)

But what about that sense of being overwhelmed that GTD solves? In my experience, GTD’s main benefit is that it helps you make a perspective shift: moving your view of things to be done from a vertical wall (now) to a horizontal path (over time).

It’s not easy, and it’ll have to remain a subject for a future article. But suffice it to say, I don’t believe it requires the implementation of a “life management system” to achieve this perspective shift.

How about “Getting Thing Done”?

Maybe instead of beating ourselves over the head daily with all the things we *must* do, we should pick up one, exactly one, thing we would like to have done or have made meaningful progress toward by the end of the day.

I have tried this pattern in my life, each time to a surprising amount of success. A lot of the meta-stuff will take care of itself (checking email, responding to calls, getting my oil changed, etc.), but allowing myself to focus on only one significant accomplishment a day actually causes me to get more done in the course of weeks/months than when I’m trying to check off properly-broken-out tasks all day.

Some friends of mine (I found out, coincidentally, after writing several drafts of this article) are creating a new iPhone app, tentatively called One Thing. It won’t be ready for a little while, but it certainly sounds like a better fit for me than tools that promise to become a wellspring of focus, until they become a stagnant pool of tasks begging for my attention.

I can’t quit you, ubiquitous capture

One component of GTD will stick with me for the rest of my life: I love ubiquitously capturing thoughts, desires, goals, and fragments of information in tools like Evernote. It’s just the “getting things done” component of GTD that didn’t work for me.

Not that writing todo lists is useless! I do think that writing down all the important stuff you need to get done is a good exercise. Then, a few years later, go back and look at it, and have a good laugh at all the things that seemed so blasted important at that moment in time.

Lastly, please watch this video of Clay Christensen speak about living a life of purpose by moving our focus beyond the near term.

Sell your principles (not your values)

Money by 401K on Flickr

Not that anyone’s offering, but I want you to know that my principles are available for sale or trade, if the right offer should come along.

It’s important to note that there’s a big difference, in my mind, between principles and values. This difference is subject to no small amount of interpretation, and you may not agree with my definitions, but let’s assume the following to illustrate a point.

Can we call for a definition?

Principles are beliefs based on observation. They are learned. They direct my actions.

Values are core philosophical understandings. They are discovered. They form my identity.

How we get them

Principles are based on experience, and mine seem to evolve at an accelerating pace as I age. I adhere the best I can to the principles I have at the time, but I’ve learned not to get attached to them. Several months ago, I had strong opinions on principles of good software development, but I now find myself taking the opposite position in many areas.

And that’s better than okay, it’s great. Evidence comes across, and your precious principle starts causing you pain, and you start refining your principle. For newer software developers indoctrinated with the idea of TATFT (test all the f****** time), the principle quickly evolves into something that a person can actually live with.

Currently, painful experience has taught me that I don’t want to be caught with any significant functionality in my code that isn’t covered by tests. So I test my code. Most of the f****** time.

That’s a principle. It’s not me, it’s just something I try to do.

Values are different. I’ve discovered my values when I read, hear, or see something that hits my natural frequency. It bangs my psyche like a gong.

When I first truly heard the George Harrison song “Within You Without You”:

“With our love, with our love, we could save the world… If they only knew!”

I pulled over in my car because I couldn’t see. I’d just spontaneously started crying. I still tear up when I hear it. That hit my exact natural frequency. Love can change the world. We can change the world. With love.

That’s a value. That’s me. That’s who I strive to be.

Dying on Principle Hill

There’s a hero fantasy that many of us share about dying for our principles. To use a contrived example: “Did you hear that when Bob was asked to spend Saturday working instead of with his family, he quit? He’s so principled!”

This would be much less likely gossip: “Did you hear that when Sandy was asked to work on a Saturday, she said she would, but needed an extra day next week to spend with her family? She’s so reasonable!”

When we pick a “hill to die on”, it’s often because we’ve mixed up our principles with our values. We can attach so completely to a principle that we wrap it into our identity, which shuts down our ability to reason about that thing.

How can you tell values from principles?

Separating values from principles comes largely with experience. But I don’t think a person gets to carry around very many values. So if you need two (or more) hands to count them, that may be a sign you’re mixing up the two.

It would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, for someone else to bribe, pressure, or convince you to violate your values. Could someone else coerce you into violating it? If so, it’s probably a principle, not a value.

And if you can cite specific examples of how your outlook or your life changed as a result of a realization or discovery, you very well could be talking about a value, and you want to hold fast to those when you find them (again, they’re few and precious).

Sell ’em, trade ’em, just trade up

Someone wants to give you a reward (or a paycheck) to do something that contradicts your principles? Sorry to tell you, it’s not black and white. It may very well be the right thing for you, in that moment, to exchange that principle for the reward you’ll receive.

If you feel a strong sense of conflict between your principles and your work, you’re not selling the principles themselves, you’re selling the right to violate them. This cedes control of them to someone else and breeds resentment.

The good news is that as soon as you assume ownership of your principles, you have the ability to trade or sell them, rather than just selling others the right to violate them. There’s no resentment for treading upon them, and no smug satisfaction for adhering to them, because it’s not you, it’s just something you try your best to do.

I think it’s healthy to learn to happily trade in principles, as long as you’re trading up. It complicates some decision making, as you’re always considering tradeoffs, rather than setting up hard and fast rules in your life and always coloring inside the lines.

Shifting to value-based decisions

Principles, to me, are something like training wheels for decision making. Perhaps the path to enlightenment is to graduate from principles entirely and understand your own values so well that you rely solely on your values as the basis for your decisions.

The first step on this path is to understand that your principles are subject to change, and that when they start causing you pain or conflict, it may be time to consider whether that principle still holds true for that situation. Remember: the principle is not you, it’s just something you try to do.

Lastly, take some time every once in a while to meditate on your values. What hits you like a bolt of lighting? What do you want the totality of your life to amount to? Once you find these, hang on to them, they’re not for sale.