Friday, February 17, 2012

Riding the Mo-mentum of Linsanity

The recent media coverage of pro athlete Jeremy Lin has been colossal and wide-reaching. Sprawling beyond the traditional sports and New York media coverage, the proliferation of "Linsanity" has brought many Asian writers and bloggers out of the bamboo woodwork. I'm no exception as the recent efforts of the Asian-American basketball player have captured the imagination of people all over the United States and the world.

There are many reasons why people have strong rooting interest in Lin's success. People resonate with his defying the stereotypes of Asians who aren't expected to excel in a profession with historical ethnic under-representation, the humility and grace with which Lin has handled recent media attention, the real-life example of strong work ethic trumping doubters and so-called experts, the story of devout and faithful Christian with a strong desire to help the less fortunate after his basketball career is over, and the success of the "team-first" approach which Lin has brought to his New York Knicks (as evidenced by a seven-game winning streak which coincided with when he started playing more minutes for the team). There are many other subplots and angles to Linsanity which have been floated around and pontificated on the web, and people identify with shared values and beliefs that Lin has brought attention to in the mainstream media.  

Aside from the obvious "appreciation of a successful Asian-American role model" angle, the story of Lin sparked my curiosity for other reasons. The story about overcoming naysayers and doubters, and making awesome things happen is inspiring. I want to apply this success story at work--I'd love to succeed in spite of the stereotypes that some people at work hold about my technical ability and limitations (many of which have been perpetuated due to having spent six years working in less "technical" area of the company prior to working in my current department). And the way for me to do that is to do what Lin would do: by making hard and smart work a habit, constantly seeking areas for improvement, and indulging in lifelong learning to hone my repertoire.

In the last Knicks game, Lin focused on his teammates involved in scoring, and finished with just 10 points--after having scored at least 20 in previous six games. But he also had 13 assists in that last game, getting the ball in hands of his teammates for easy scores. I can learn from this and apply Linsanity at work, even when what I'm doing is less glamorous and visible than others' high-profile assignments. I can take pride in getting little things done that would make the jobs of my colleagues easier. We have a monotonous "electronic paperwork" task which almost everyone dreads working on, but I've recently started a habit of producing 4-5 times as much output than what was requested. I've even started volunteering to do them even when I wasn't asked to do so. I also take pride in paying attention to detail, finding ways to make the "electronic paperwork" easier for others to digest. It's grunt work but I want to excel--I want to own it! Those are my "assists" which don't show up on the organizational monthly scorecard but help keep the team's workload manageable.  

Even as recent as two weeks ago, Lin was just a bench player for the Knicks who was one bad game away from getting cut. His only opportunity to play came due to injuries and ineffectiveness of other players on the team. But Lin saw a chance, made the most of it, and captured the imagination of many basketball followers and the general public. Luck may have played a role in this feel-good story, but without years of hard work on his part, the Linsanity would not have happened. Lin believed in himself and his abilities, and worked his tail off endlessly, waiting for a chance. He could have easily given up after two other teams had cut him in the last four months, or after spending years of being ignored by college and professional scouts. But he didn't surrender, and he put himself in a position to earn an opportunity--even if it was a one-shot (no puns intended) deliver-or-perish deal. As Seth Godin puts it, Lin leaned into the dip, kept improving his craft, and delivered. The take-away for me is to persevere when I'm experiencing brutal stretches at work and to strive for learning new technical skills in my spare time. There may not be advancement opportunities in my current job, but studying and working hard might open up possibilities in the future. Nothing was ever handed to Lin--he earned his opportunity. I don't expect anything to be handed to me either: all I know is that giving up--through apathy, inertia, and inaction--is a path to never receiving an opportunity in the future.    

The Linsanity phenomenon is a revelation which allowed me a chance to reflect on the importance of believing in myself, taking pride in doing meaningful work no matter how monotonous, and keep working hard even when current opportunities seem limited or nonexistent. These are values that are shared by driven and motivated people regardless of their ethnicity or nationality. Elements of Lin's success are what I have been inspired by during the recent media mania.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reaching Out: Not Being Afraid to Drive the Nail in the Wood

It happens once or twice every month at work. Either I receive a "welcome wagon" mass email from one of the managers elsewhere in our vast IT organization who is announcing a new team member, or I receive some business-related message from some new person in the organization. Many people I know at work simply ignore and delete these communiqués without giving them second thoughts, but I that's not how I roll.

Whenever I receive these emails, I spend couple minutes composing quick "Welcome to the organization!"-type notes to newcomers, regardless of who they are in our 300-person department. Welcoming people is something that I strongly believe in. It doesn't matter that these new colleagues are situated in some distant work units within our IT group, or what their job titles are. And I don't really give a damn that I'm not "ranked high" in the traditional organizational chart either: I inevitably wind up encountering these colleagues during course of business, and it's best to become acquainted with new people early on. Getting to know the colleagues early helps establish familiarity and comfort--which is important when, months later, I am asked to work with them in high-leverage and pressure-filled situations.

And sometimes these messages of goodwill to new colleagues lead to fortuitous turn of events. I have established awesome work and personal relationships with these colleagues. Some have offered invaluable career and workplace guidance and mentorship. I wouldn't have the confidence to explore future learning and career opportunities without the encouragement and advice from these trusty colleagues.

There are naysayers who feel that I'm wasting time and workplace resource by reaching out to new colleagues. They feel that it is the job of the Administrative folks to welcome newcomers, and that it's not my place to socialize. They feel that those couple minutes that I spend communicating with new peers could be redirected to putting out the fire du jour. Or spent actively engaging in silo-building activities. Too bad for them that my interest lies in establishing relationships and networks, not silos and animosity towards outsiders.

Of course, when these naysayers are asked to work with these newcomers/strangers in high-leverage and pressure-filled situations, the naysayers cling onto their silos due to their unfamiliarity and lack of relationships with these colleagues: as a result, breakdowns in communication often occur.

Reaching out to newcomers has become second nature to me. It's also a way for me to "pay it forward." Before I moved to Portland in the fall of 1995 (during the heyday of the Internet phenomenon), couple of complete strangers who frequented a Usenet discussion group read a post of mine about my plans for relocating to Portland. These kindhearted folks sent private emails welcoming me to the city. The kindness of--and outreach by--these folks were not lost on me, and I vowed to adopt that habit whenever possible.

These former strangers and I have remained friends throughout these years. In fact, I'll probably see one of them at an after-work beer gathering of tech folks later today.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Everything's Alright When You're Down

This year began by my planting the seeds of momentum-building ideas and habits which aligned with my short- and long-term goals. The well-needed vacation at beginning of the year yielded a productive mental space for me to evaluate my priorities and interests. I implemented several goal-assisting habits to my daily activities since the fruitful break.

Then the wheels of progress suddenly slowed to a crawl about ten days ago. I contracted cold-like symptoms. Crap! I usually have no more than one or two bouts with feeling under the weather every year, but I respond to onsets of such discomfort by flipping into a "Beat the Cold" mode: I focus on sleeping more, bundling up in layers to stay warm throughout the day, altering my diet (drinking more clear soup and avoiding dairy), and dropping any routines or activities which did not relate to hastened recover--including most activities which involve expenditure of physical and/or mental energy. The recent debacle wasn't severe enough that I missed any time at work, but I wanted to get through the rough patch as soon as possible. I have been through the routine so many times that I knew it was a matter of time before I kicked the cold's sorry ass.

But this time I experienced something that I have never felt during my previous rounds of overcoming the cold. Every day that I spent focusing actively on getting better meant passing time "taking it easy." That meant plenty of bedrest. In a frantic rush to avoid physical and mental exhaustion, I halted many of the goal-oriented habits and activities such as working out at the gym, practicing the piano, writing blog entries, and studying. I often came home from work exhausted and immediately bundled up in my bed instead of spending evenings productively. I felt extremely frustrated by the prolonged inertia.

Forcing myself to refocus my energy from taking active steps towards my future goals to simply overcoming the cold meant having to deprive myself of experiencing highly-productive days. It was aggravating to end each day unfulfilled--each day of not learning future job skills or partaking in daily routines was a wasteful day. After spending weeks of productive habit-making, it felt foreign to let my mind and spirits spiral into a situation where I felt I wasn't doing anything worthwhile (other than reading couple of good books and learning about where to score best hearty Tom Kha and Tom Yum soups in my neighborhood). Thankfully, participating in occasional social gatherings during this time was therapeutic and timely.

I feel that this cold-induced inertia was one of those "one step backward, two steps forward" situatons. It sucked that I didn't participate in rewarding habits and activities over the past ten days. But it's exciting to realize that my source of frustration is caused by my self-imposed high expectations: I'd rather feel that I am cheating myself for not putting in a productive day of learning, instead of coasting through every day without challenging myself or learning anything. Slowing down is not a preferred option for me since making awesome involves challenging myself and pushing boundaries. Forcing myself to seek comfort for the sake of recovery caused a prolonged period of mental discomfort--how ironic!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Road to Awesome is Paved with Lots of Suck

In an earlier episode of The Powder Keg of Awesome podcast, the co-host (and my friend) Jackie quipped, "The road to awesome is paved with lots of suck." She and co-host Jerry pontificated on the notion that success and mastery are achieved after driving oneself through "the dip" (an idea by Seth Godin from the book of the same name) with focus and determination. When worthy endeavors become difficult and struggles become commonplace, it takes fortitude to slog through the low points, to carry on the upward momentum, and to reach a level of tangible success.

Recently I experienced my own challenging journey through the dip. At my IT job, we are required to keep our credentials current and relevant--which makes sense, as technology is always evolving. We were told last spring that we were expected to study for and pass several technical certification exams which somehow relate to part of our daily duties. It was implied that we were to study mostly on our own time. We were expected to have earned our certifications by end of 2011.

I initially began studying for the certification exams during summer but soon became derailed. The official study guide books which we were loaned were full of errors and detracted from understanding the material (one of the study books by itself had 86 pages worth of errata!). I became discouraged and stopped reading the books--and I didn't explore other avenues of studying the material at that time. The litany of excuses couldn't mask the realization that I had put in an half-assed effort during that time. I let time pass.

Six weeks before end of the year, I took the exam and failed. This was a strange experience, since I'm generally good at things that I put effort into learning and mastering. I didn't do anything differently while studying for these exams as I had done several years ago, when our job duties had the "pass-the-exam-or-perish" ultimatum--I passed those exams with little difficulty. I spent time reading the study material again--despite its flawed accuracy--and barely passed first of the two exams in early December. The very next day, I took the second exam and failed with a disturbingly low score. The experience of repeatedly failing tests about a body of knowledge that I was expected to master made me question whether or not spending time studying for this stupid exam was worth the effort. In best-case scenario, we use about 10 percent of the contents of the technical exam in our current job responsibilities: it seemed wasteful being forced to obtain certification for some technical subject with minimum return-on-investment when there are other types of professional development studies that are more relevant to the workplace. During these challenging weeks, I often related to old Depeche Mode lyrics--"It all seems so stupid it makes me want to give up, but why should I give up when it all seems so stupid?"

There were times where I seriously thought about giving up and walking away from my job. I couldn't see the benefits of putting my entire non-work life aside just to focus on certification studies. I seriously questioned if this ordeal was worth overcoming: perhaps I could find more satisfying work situation elsewhere. In the end, I decided to lean into the dip and work towards attaining the certification, despite my misgivings about its value at work.

Several things led to my decision. I was blessed with constant encouragement from "yay-sayers" from all aspects of professional and personal life--the creative colleagues in different departments, a smidgen of helpful and supportive teammates, kindred spirits whom I had met at past professional conferences, blogger and podcaster friends who show others how to live their lives to the fullest, and a rich melange of friends. Receiving their support, tapping into their energies, and accepting their occasional kicks-to-my-butt fueled my desire to get myself out of the daunting nadir and push onward. Reading and absorbing a very thought-provoking blog article by Johnny B. Truant (6 Steps to Kicking Failure's Sorry Ass) helped too.

I also realized that the raison d'être for enjoying my work factored into the decision to pursue the certification (and by extension keeping my job): I make awesome at work and delight my customers, and if I don't obtain the certification, there will be no making awesome or delighting my customers in the near future.

So I spent most of December trying to steamroll over lots of suck. I gave up many activities which I would normally enjoy during this time of the year. There were no holiday lights viewing excursions, annual Swedish holiday parties, piano practices, gym workouts, band rehearsals, or leisurely culinary experimentations during that time. I ordered take-out pizza several times, and had stretches of days eating pizza exclusively, usually in front of my computer while studying. I turned test material into iPhone flash cards and turned small amounts of idle time into impromptu study sessions. It was an inconvenience freezing my hands while using the digital flash card app while waiting for buses during cold December mornings, but it had to be done. I scoured the Internet for resources relating to the exam subject and topics covered. During what little social events that I attended, I brought my study material along. I spent most of the ten-day vacation in Florida and New York City in front of my laptop engaged in serious studying.

Near end of the vacation, I took the exam in Elmhurst, Queens--and passed. The proverbial weight on my shoulders vanished at that moment, and I triumphantly walked into the cold and windy Roosevelt Avenue with the neatly-stamped certificate folded inside my pocket and with uncontrollable bounce in my steps. I also unleashed some jubilant profanity-laced interjections of glorious exaltation for a good measure.

What did I learn during this experience? Forcing myself to embrace the uncomfortable was a challenge, but it led to a positive outcome. Exerting self-discipline on a regular basis felt unfamiliar at first, but became somewhat routine as the weeks passed. I regret having missed out on many festivities and activities, and the recent vacation seem like a faint blur now. But since I had put myself in the precarious situation by procrastinating throughout the year, I had to make difficult choices about what to focus on.

With the exam ordeal behind me, I'm now curious about what I can learn by pushing the boundaries of my comfort and applying discipline to activities that I want to pursue (such as exercising, practicing piano, and studying new subjects) and routines that I want to turn into habits (like setting consistent curfews, making nighttime preparations for the next day, and increasing dietary awareness). Perhaps over time, I can overcome my fear of discomfort and stop rationalizing excuses for inertia.