Top Things Through Twenty-Ten

I’ve learned a lot in my 25 years on this Earth. Every trip around the sun brings more wisdom, experience, embarrassment and so on to my story. This year has been no exception – since I’m turning 25 I thought I’d finish 2010 with 25 things I’ve learned thus far. Check back every few days to see the next one!

Steeping Indefinitely if Necessary

Diligence is one of my favorite topics…ever. I’m also shamelessly addicted to how tea takes time to steep, which matches this drive to be diligent perfectly. Never before have I realized how well these two pieces of my life fit together, which naturally means I’m going to pause and explore it through writing.

Tea is an old interest of mine. I have memories of watching previous generations make steaming mugs of their favorite concoctions – each one had something they really liked to drink. I came from a primarily non-alcoholic background, so when things got going it was various teas and coffees that were consumed, not alcoholic beverages. This made me learn to appreciate the subtle mixtures in tea from a young age, something that still fascinates me to this day: if you like yours served a certain way, you work to get it right.

On the other hand, the topic of endurance has also been a big deal to me for as long as I can remember. Part of my full name means “enduring” and really describes my life as a whole. (More on that one another time.) Though my interest in working hard has nothing to do with tea, the principles that encourage growth in both areas are very much the same.

If you want to have something great to enjoy, you have to work hard and be willing to wait.

This isn’t ground-breaking by any means…but it can be easy to misplace. This past year brought some neat adventures, but the times when I worked hard and remained patient really paid off. There’s a lot of wisdom in zooming out to see the big picture (which drives you to remain patient) and zooming in to view the details (which drives you to work hard on the details.) I think this is a good balance for every major pursuit or direction in life – something worth considering.

Bottom line: being steeped in whatever you’re doing is going to benefit everything in then end. If you’re going after something, surround yourself with the best tools possible, work hard, then wait for dividends. Hard work and patience pays off! We tend to appreciate things more when we have to work for them, and that takes time.

#14 – Yes Man vs Picking Battles

Sometimes…you just have to say no. I have a very hard time with this.

For as long as I can remember, my role in friendships/relationships/acquaintences has been one of helping out. I love to add what I do best to what people are working on – generally speaking this results in their project or task expanding into new territories, gaining world accliam*, etc. (Note: World acclaim is currently pending.)

Seriously though: I just like to help people. There’s a lot of stuff I can do well, but when I add the things I do (plus loads of hard work) to what someone else is doing, stuff just works. I don’t know why this happens but I do capitalize on it whenever I can. I love seeing people reach goals and break through whatever holds them back.

The downside to having this mindset, however, is that I tend to say “yes” to most things that come my way. When I see something tipping over, I tend to get up and help make it sturdy again. All well and good…but then I have to rush back to what I was doing. Rinse, repeat, 25 years later and I’m still learning.

This week I had a fun conversation with some of my clients: “As a general rule, I no longer schedule anything day-of unless it’s mission critical. This goes for real-life, not just work, which means I’m never “on call” by default. I plan my day when I go to bed the night before, so unless something is burning, dying or shutting down I rarely work on things that aren’t in my previous night’s schedule. Why? Simple: I have a heart for helping people and say yes too easily!”

Bottom line? 2010 has taught me that I need to focus less on the entire stream and specialize more on specific things. I expect this will manifest in various ways throughout next year, but something very simple like saying “no” here and there has been a really interesting adventure…

#15 – Don’t Run Holiday Inn

Every year, right around Christmas, my family somehow manages to converge upon the same location. I joke with my mom that I “schedule this meeting 12 months in advance” but it really is true – Christmas is the one holiday I try my very hardest not to miss. This year was no exception, with my sister and her husband coming in from Arizona, me traveling from Missouri, and the rest of my family preparing a place to meet in Nebraska.

Beyond the good times, however, I realized something very important about how we relate to one another throughout the year. We all do a pretty good job of staying in contact, but it doesn’t look like Christmas with all of us being in one physical location very often. Part of this is the fact that we all have lives and families in different places – I suddenly realized the correlation between all of us and the film Holiday Inn.

In the film, Bing Crosby plays a character who wants to break away from traditional showbiz. His vision is an inn, one that only opens on holidays. He wants to create a special atmosphere for people observing special events thought the year. I’ve always enjoyed this film for several reasons, but this was the first year I really took it to heart. We sort of run our own “Holiday Inn” around here.

Don’t get me wrong – the way my family comes together for big events doesn’t bother me. I deeply appreciate the opportunities we get to spend time with one another every year. While I do wish those opportunities came along more often, I’m still very thankful for the time we get.

I have some good friends that are on the other side of the spectrum: they see their family once or twice a year, but it’s an atmosphere of tension and disagreement. Resentment and jealously permeate their gatherings. It almost makes me feel like I’ve taken advantage of having such a great group of people to call my family. Surely there have been times of lax commitment to this unit – I haven’t always appreciated the time we get together. I can’t change the past, but I can build for the future.

As I looked around the table this afternoon, I saw the faces of people I love very much. Each of them means a separate part of the world to me, something that time and distance can’t ever take away. My goal for this year and every year to follow is this: make absolutely sure holidays are not the only time we are “open” for fellowship together. This might mean being extra intentional about staying in touch, working visits into vacation plans, whatever it takes. I never want to take my family for granted – you won’t see me trying to run a Holiday Inn.

#16 – All We Lack is Finishing…and Starting

This year has been full of things I wish had been started sooner.

Really, there’s not much you can do if you don’t start.

…I’m going to go start something, back in a bit.

#17 – Twitter Story

I’ve had a twitter account for over 3 1/2 years. How long have I been active? Roughly 3 1/2 weeks.

I’m not exactly sure what happened: did I chicken out from social interaction, was I scared of constant updates, could I have misunderstood the potential? Whatever the cause, I have learned that a tool like this should never have been left sitting dormant. I absolutely love the platform as a whole, plus I’m excited to see how it grows and evolves over time. I don’t know what’s coming next for communication, but I like what I see here.

See, I’m a sucker for conversation. I’m a pretty natural introvert, but I really do enjoy talking to people. I have a strange obsession with understanding how people work and what makes them tick, so peering through endless windows into human interaction is one of the best things I can spend time doing. I’m fascinated by the idea of “human engineering” in a way.

There are times when I look at my don’t-try-the-new-thing impulse and have to shake my head – I was slow to embrace texting just as I couldn’t bring myself to use Twitter. Why I’ve resisted new things is a mystery to me, because I love to learn and grow however possible.

Here’s what I’ve learned: any time you have the opportunity to expand your sphere of comfort, you should do so.

So much can happen when you just get up and do something you’re not 100% sure about. You end up learning things about yourself, people around you, the combined space you’re in and so on. In order to really tell you what I mean, I have to show you something new: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jBJON7kUzw

This is the first of many video blogs for me. I went and bought a pocket-sized camera to force myself into action, so here’s the first one. Sometimes you have to leap without a parachute to really get a view of what’s coming next. I hope you stick around to watch how these grow and change over time. Maybe I’ll tweet about it sometime…

#18 – Omit Needless Words

Exactly.

#19 – Don’t Take Long Showers

(Please forgive the many naked-guy-in-the-hot-water references to follow.)

I’m not sure I have ever met someone who dislikes a long, hot shower. Things are finally cooling off here in Missouri, so the idea of climbing into bed after bathing in steam (or rushing to it in the morning) is a very inviting one. Everything feels better after a hot shower…but also I think it can be a terrible idea.

Why do we take long showers, anyway? Perhaps to soothe aching muscles, snag relaxing time away from distractions, or have some sense of ownership over one part of our crazy lives. Regardless of your reasons, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down to enjoy it. This year has taught me not to focus on that momentary bliss, however, and instead consider what it does to my awareness of events around me.

For example: earlier this year I had a “long shower” mentality with my income. Things were going pretty well and I had a decent stream, so I paused to enjoy the steam. When it cleared, I was shocked by the cold air and left somewhat…exposed. Things dried up at my full-time job and I had to kick freelancing into high gear just to get by. Who knew the temperature around me would change so fast?

I’m finding that staying comfortable can bring about a loss of focus. I get that everyone works well when they’re in their “zone” but it doesn’t mean that is always best. Sometimes being forced to jump in and get cleaned up within a certain amount of time is a good thing – it certainly lit a fire under my work mentality this year. I knew I had a certain number of days before reaching zero, so I dried off and got to work.

Environment changes are a great tool for productivity. Things that force you to grow and adapt can make a huge difference in the long run. You might catch a chill here and there, but overall you’ll have more stamina when it happens the next time. Please don’t overrate this skill, and for Pete’s sake don’t get so focused on the warm fuzzies that you miss what lies outside your door. Soak up the spray in front of you, then towel off and get back at it. Being a bit wet behind the ears is fine – you learn to get those hard-to-reach places clean that way.

#21 – Backseat Consulting

Something really hit me this year: everyone is in the consulting business. This fascinates me a lot more than it did last year, because I’ve been in environments all through 2010 where it made worlds of difference. How? I think the view from the back seat is a lot more different than we think.

One example is business. I was full-time for a local web company at the start of the year, which eventually devolved into a 5-hour weekly retainer position. I learned a lot about how I was viewed through the change: they kept me around because I knew stuff. This is a great position to be in, don’t get me wrong, but I found that once your actual services are no longer needed, your lifespan can be tossed around on a whim. Unless the know-how and “chops” you have are always in the 1% margin, they might not find reason to keep you employed. Does giving your input make you invaluable? Nope, not unless they clearly communicate what they want to do down the road so you can prepare, train and learn. Great advice does no good to those unwilling to hear it.

A second example is the number of one-on-one relationships I’ve built through my church. Getting away from the pews avails you to hearing a lot more about what’s going on in lives around you, which I’ve been able to do a lot this year. (Side note: Christianity as a whole desperately needs to be more about this.) Conversations with people living on the street didn’t happen because I was telling them how to live – who am I to do that? Instead, we talked about whatever was current in their situation and went from there. Did they need $5 that day? Cool, it’s all theirs if I have it and I’m not going to tell them where to spend it. If they asked for advice or I felt like we had a good relationship, then MAYBE I’d suggest something I’ve tried. Big difference to an “The answer is 42” mentality.

Yes, I’m rambling, but I find it interesting how much “consulting” we do without even thinking about it. I think there are times and places for it, but I have found MANY more times when I need to stay silent. In other words: relevant information does not equal respectful input.

It’s like everyone is in the back seat giving advice to the driver. We find it in social circles, business relationships, financial decisions, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this – we make most of our decisions based on the input of those around us – but an inerrant flaw permeates the “culture” of consulting: the view is different from the back seat. Since there’s only one “driver” in every person’s life, we need to respect that and be careful not to flood them with advice. Too many voices saying “go left” or “turn right” just adds stress and distractions to a choice someone is making. Plus it gives you a reputation for being a controlling jerk. As Bob Newhart would say: “Stop it!”

By all means, be willing to give your opinions and share experiences. Trying to consult from the back seat can be rough though, because you can’t see everything coming at the driver further down the road. I think personal relationships are what bridge that gap…but more on that later. For now, I’ll be working on whatever it takes to build that trust first.

#22 -Timing is Everything

You may notice that this post is a few days behind schedule…I can’t think of a better way to make this point. Timing is something you get a “feel” for throughout life, but I’m convinced that it’s nothing you can fully grasp.

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning this year has been about proper timing. (I don’t have it figured out yet.)

I know this: patience goes a long way. As a Christian I believe God has a handle on the whole time thing, even to a point of my daily adventures around this rock. This year I’ve physically paused just in time to avoid very real dangers, pushed through uncertain times towards long-term figurative goals, waited to speak until I had something to say, etc. It may seem small or simplistic, but all of this has been valuable as I continue to learn more about timing on various levels.

Finally, there are many times when NOW is the time to act. Have an idea? Now is a good time to write it down, or better yet, try it out. Want to chase a dream? Today is day 1.

“How” we decide “when” is of great interest to me. I’d like to explore that further at some point, because I really believe you look at events in your life differently when you take a “big picture” approach. Plus it can be a lot of fun to step back and stop sweating the small stuff while you watch things in motion around you.

#23 – It Doesn’t Have To Make Cents

At the start of the year, I was working full-time for a local web company. I had been doing freelance work on the side for a while, but wasn’t seeing much growth in either position. Eventually the full-time gig scaled back into a paid retainer position, and I wound up with a fair amount of time on my hands. Not good. I had just signed a lease on an apartment (like, day before) and had some other bills to take care of as well. Now what?

After my job changed, I immediately went to the freelance market and tried to drum up some business. Through lots of hard work and prayer…I made ends meet for a couple weeks. I should have had more in savings, but I didn’t, so I kept at it. I was looking at working for tech places, gas stations, video stores, you name it. I was willing to do what must be done, but nothing felt right.

See, here’s what I know: I was made to work hard and help people. Even though I can do that no matter where I work – you can’t beat the schedule freedom of freelancing. I spend a good portion of my week doing whatever I can for those around me, and working freelance avails some neat opportunities for that to happen. It’s also a pain in the neck to manage, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m at a point now where I can split my freelance time with a new business startup (more on that later) and I’m grateful for how this direction has been providing for me.

Bottom line, and the theme of many things to come, is this: when you simply can’t ignore something you are dieing to try, you need to give it a shot. Time, planning and prayer are all part of that, though you also have to get up and DO something. Even when the math doesn’t work and your passion doesn’t make cents…yet. Sometimes that “last straw” is one of the best things that can happen to you.

#24 – Time For Building Stronger Networks

It’s pretty safe to say I have been “active” on various forms of social media for many years. From working on admin teams to building forum relationships, I’ve spent a fair amount of time building virtual equity with many people around the world. While I would not trade the networking lessons, there are a few key things I’ve learned from all this:

  • Using social media should be part of your everyday life. I know that’s bold, but you really ought to be finding like-minded people and networking with them. Want to talk tea? Passionate about biking? Love movies? Go talk to people, make a few friends, then get to know them better. Amazing.
  • There are “good” and “bad” uses of social networking time. Hear me on this: I’m not talking about Farmville vs. your long-lost relatives, rather the balance between the social “high” and actually building something you can come back to. (I heard the term “scaling every relationship” as a great way to put it. Grow your connections in quality before quantity!)
  • Time spent online should COMPLIMENT time spent investing in those directly around you. General principle of life, I know, but easy to forget once you start into all the “good things” you do for people online. I learned this the hard way.

I try not to say things without having reason behind my words, so please understand I’m only making observations here. Even though I’ve been involved in social mediums for years, stepping back and taking stock has helped me a lot. There are connections I’m not using like I should, others I ought to get rid of, along with new ones I’ve been running from for years (looking at you, Twitter). It’s been cool to see the response from OTHER HUMAN BEINGS that enjoy lots of the same things I do – trying to see every screen name differently has been a cool part of this year so far.

#25 – This Year Has Been Awesome

I can’t find a reason to say this year has been less amazing than last year. In fact, I’d say it has been significantly better than last year overall, even though there have been a lot of new challenges.

Here are a few:
– Dropped Full-Time Employment
– Moved to New Area of Town
– Went Full-Time into Freelance Web Development & Design
– Started Teaching/Co-Teaching 3 New Classes at Church
– Co-Founded Small Marketing Company (more on that later)
– Posted First Tweet

As you can see, there have been a few possible avenues for growth and change so far! I’ve got a crazy month ahead of me, and who knows what December might hold, but so far I wouldn’t trade this “hustle” for anything. I feel like every day lets me learn and grow in new areas, meet new people, gain additional perspective on life, etc. Wouldn’t trade it!

I’m going to continue to make observations about this year every few days until 2011. Stay tuned and be sure to follow me at Twitter/Facebook or snag the RSS feed for updates!