Year One completed…
I recently received a notice that my first 1-year domain registration is about to expire, which makes this an opportune time to review the past year and round up a number thoughts I have been mulling for a while that haven’t justified a full post.
One year ago I decided to take this endeavor seriously enough to justify registering my own domain name. The posterous blog I originally dabbled with was located at www.spiral-out.posterous.com. At the time the domain spiral-out.com was available, but when I finally decided to register around this time last year that domain was taken. As some of you know, “spiral-out” was a reference to the song Lateralus by Tool, and specifically to the following verse:
I’m reaching up and reaching out,
I’m reaching for the random or whatever will bewilder me…
Whatever will bewilder me
And following our will and wind…we may just go where no one’s been
We’ll ride the spiral to the end…and may just go where no one’s been
Keep going, going…
With that name, and all derivations thereof unavailable, I found myself searching for a similarly catchy line reflecting the same meaning…eventually fixating on an earlier verse:
Feed my will to feel this moment, urging me to cross the line.
Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.
I embrace my desire to…
I embrace my desire to…
feel the rhythm,
to feel connected…
enough to step aside and weep like a widow,
to feel inspired,
to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty,
to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral,
to swing on the spiral,
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.
OnTheSpiral was born. During the 12 months since, I have moved through a number of significant transitions. Perhaps that is one reason why 12 months on, I still have not written a personal bio that I am happy with. Nor have I positioned this blog in a way that I find satisfying for the long term. Perhaps writing this post will lead to some new perspectives…
Experiments in Pull
When I first committed to writing regularly I consciously avoided adopting any concrete goals. My only goal was to follow the trails that offered inspiration. This blog was an experiment in pull. I put things out in the public sphere to see who will find them. That attitude has been a challenge to maintain, particularly as my level of commitment has increased. The more time I spend doing this the more I am asked, “Why?”.
Are you selling advertising? Do you want to be a professional blogger? Are you positioning for a job as a journalist?
Obviously the answer is – none of the above.
Members of the blogosphere have had an almost equally difficult time understanding my position. Whenever I sought out blogging wisdom I was inundated with advice like:
- Define your target market.
- Communicate a unique selling proposition.
- Post a sales page immediately to position yourself as a (compensated) professional.
- Aggressively build your email list
But of course, limiting myself to a narrowly defined target market is exactly what I am trying to avoid.
Perhaps I should start answering simply – “I write this blog because it creates opportunities.”
That difficulty explaining my (lack of) specific intentions was particularly pronounced when I quit my full time job last December. The immediate assumption when you quit a stable financial services job, particularly in the middle of a financial crisis, is that you have a better offer. Whenever I attempted to explain my decision I would encounter a cacophony of blank stares. We eventually negotiated a compromise whereby I stayed on as a part-time consultant through the end of July, gradually tapering down my hours. To the end, I’m not sure any of my coworkers truly understood my perspective or motivations. Every conversation seemed to involve a subtext assumption that I was either taking a temporary sabbatical or that I was somehow angling for a promotion.
Despite all the confusion described above, the original plan – focus on pull – has worked quite effectively whenever I have been able to maintain that focus. Over the past year I have connected with an incredible network of like-minded thinkers for whom I have the utmost respect (you). I regret that I can’t always be as responsive as I would like. To some extent that is my own shortcoming, as I am still finding and refining my self-motivated productivity groove. And unfortunately, to some extent the loose ends are an inevitable consequence of venturing into the attention economy. We are all entering an environment in which it will be simply impossible to satisfactorily follow up on every potential connection or opportunity.
Nonetheless, many of you have pushed through my peripheral awareness and become fixtures in my daily experience. Two of those deep connections have led to ongoing formal relationships. You may have noticed my blogging for Superfluid earlier in the summer. I have been quiet there lately as Superfluid is undergoing a bit of a transition, but I hope to pick up the momentum again soon. I am also working with another group that you should be hearing more about in the future.
Tomorrow I will be flying Toronto to attend and speak at the Sibos conference, where I will finally have the opportunity to meet a number of connections from Year One offline. I look forward to connecting with many more people in year two of my experiment with pull.
Musings on Boundary Conditions
How do you organize your time without reference to arbitrary goals? This is a question that has confounded me off and on throughout my life.
When you have unwanted constraints in your life it is convenient to fixate on eliminating those constraints as the panacea for all dissatisfactions. When I was spending 8+ hours a day at an uninspriing job, it was easy to idealize my life without that imposition. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there is more to a good life than simply the absence of constraint. A good life is not an empty life, but instead one filled with positive experiences and developments…however you define that.
Counter-intuitively, the removal of external constraints initially makes this more difficult to achieve. How do you orient yourself towards a life filled with positives after you’ve removed all the signposts?
The immediate temptation is to unwittingly substitute one set of external constraints for another. Most of the common blogging advice pushes people in that direction. You escape bondage to the cubicle only to embrace bondage to pageviews, subscribers, retweets, conversions…pick your poison. Though there is surely some benefit to be derived from consciously choosing your psychic prison, that was not the path I wanted.
How then to avoid drifting aimlessly? This dilemma is particularly confounding for someone like me…someone who tends to over-think, over-analyze, and stubbornly reject simplistic conventional wisdom.
A positive orientation demands some semblance of a foundation…some guiding principles that shepherd one towards those positives. Yet, chasing the positives themselves only leads to hollow striving. Absent a satisfying precept, us existential types rapidly descend into aimless hedonism or obsessive brooding. Reconciling this dilemma requires a middle ground…boundary conditions meaningful enough to act as a guide and yet sufficiently fluid to avoid supporting arbitrary prescription.
Though I am far from any comprehensive solutions, I have learned some lessons. One such lesson runs exactly contrary to conventional wisdom – to only consider long term goals (ends) as defined in their vaguest, least arbitrary, most incontrovertible form and then to focus on pursuing the means most likely to engender those ends:
- Do good work
- Cultivate meaningful personal relationships
- Earn enough money to sustain a reasonable lifestyle
What is good work?
I know it when I see it and so do you if you are honest with yourself. Those people prone to denial and self-serving delusions, or lacking in intrinsic motivation, might want to avoid this advice and stick to chasing proxies of success. Everyone else knows what good work feels like, and we can recognize the conditions that are conducive to it.
For example, I know that committing to post on a specific schedule only causes me frustration and creates mental blocks. By contrast, setting aside large blocks of uninterrupted time (4+ hours) for focused effort during the late morning/early afternoon consistently leads to good work. That “good work” might be a new post or it might be something else. I have to trust myself to opportunistically allocate those blocks of time towards the highest value activities based on whatever information is available day to day. If I consistently prioritize short-term benefits over long-term benefits, then I need to reexamine the decision making process. The solution is not to bind myself to some easily-discredited future outcome.
The boundary conditions then take the form of lifestyle design choices that precipitate a range of potential positive outcomes.
Stocks, Flows and Managing Tempo
This principle is hardly original, though often under-appreciated. It is a parallel to the business strategy insight suggesting that success derives more from access to flows than from control of stocks. Rather than optimizing around the accomplishment of a specific end goal (producing a stock), you instead optimize your participation in flows. That requires optimizing your bandwidth over the long term, then opportunistically managing your allocation of that bandwidth in the short term.
It is in some ways the inverse of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of Flow, which many readers will be familiar with. Csikszentmihalyi’s work focuses on achieving the flow state itself. Common applications of the flow concept advise you to start by choosing a specific task and then guide you to finding flow in the execution of that task. The implication is that the chosen task, and the achievement of the flow state itself, are the ultimate goods to be achieved. This brings us full circle, back to the arbitrary/hedonistic dilemma. The task itself is arbitrary (in the big picture). The pursuit of flow for its own sake is hedonistic.
The conclusions described in the previous section owe more to Venkat Rao’s notion of Tempo. Optimizing bandwidth is an exercise in managing tempo – nurturing the capacity to maintain a desirable tempo and aligning tempo intervals with complementary tasks.
As an aside, I never reviewed Venkat’s book more thoroughly because I knew I was missing a lot on the first read through. I didn’t feel qualified to write a befitting review. I definitely recommend it though. It is one of those gifts that keeps on giving…densely packed with insights, many of which I am only beginning to appreciate months later.
That’s all I have for now. Onward towards Year Two…