Sunday, April 28, 2013

I Wonder What I Would Have Become?

The TEDx Portland event which I attended this Saturday offered many tales of transformation and inspiration. They were about using available technology, knowledge, and resources to visualize a compelling future, searching for humanity and purpose in the always-on, connected digital world, and overcoming limitations and stereotypes to accomplish amazing things. The presenters, who were from diverse backgrounds, turned adversities and challenges into opportunities, created a culture of sustained habits, embraced imperfection, built communities, and led mission-driven lives despite expectations of people around them.

The theme of this year's event was exploring, What if?

So many tangents from the What if resonated in my head throughout the event. It felt as if there were kinships between the challenges and struggles of the presenters and various slices of my life experiences. The event begged the question about how I spent my first 45 years on this earth. What if I had followed the action steps of the inspiring speakers at TEDx Portland earlier in my life? What would I have accomplished by now? I wonder what I would have become?

What if I used limitations as a challenge? Around 1993, I recorded more songs in my apartment "studio" when I owned just one used synthesizer, a drum machine, and a four-track tape. My output declined significantly after I expanded my personal studio with additional gear. The four-track days were inefficient at times, but having limitations forced me to work within constraints. Just as critically-acclaimed chef Naomi Pomeroy created a successful restaurant with limited funds and lack of flames in the kitchen, limitations force creativity and ingenuity. Illustrator Kate Bingaman-Burt transformed constraints into rules and discipline for her successful projects.

What if I didn't let the others' expectations and naysayers influence my career direction? I've spent decades trying to please others whose opinions I thought mattered. I bought into the cultural expectations of the patriarchal "keep quiet, please the people whom you work for and with, don't make waves, and you'll keep getting promotions" ruse for over few decades. It wasn't until few years ago that I realized that following the old way of thinking is completely useless in the modern world, and the pursuit of obedience interfered with my learning goals and aspirations. Creative genius and successful Internet entrepreneur Ben Huh didn't buy into the cultural and stereotypical expectations that were applied to him when his family immigrated from South Korea to the United States at the age of 14 to take up custodial work. Instead of being resigned to a stereotypical occupational path of menial laborers, corner grocery store ownership, or dry cleaning services ownership, he attended college, found his passion in Internet media, and broke expectations. What if I stop believing that my professional career path is that of a front-line IT technician--a blue (screen) collar IT worker? What if I proceed with the journey of learning, experiencing, and sharing--without giving a damn about seeking approval of those who want to regulate me and control what and when I can learn? My job title and work situation are limitations only if I give into the naysayers and let their expectations define me.

What if I had built upon the successful events in my life? There are many accomplishments in my life that I'm proud of, but I felt that I had slept on my bed of laurels without taking the next steps. Singing in my high school choir gave me a sense of confidence and stoked my creativity. I earned a spot in the all-state choir couple of times. I sang in my school's elite choir. But I didn't put in the work to succeed at the next level. I earned a college scholarship right after high school, but the scholarship was revoked after one semester due to atrocious grades and lack of academic discipline. I've earned lead positions at various jobs in the past, but I didn't use those opportunities to seek additional responsibilities or learning opportunities. I won a contest sponsored by a local radio station for remixing one of my favorite musicians' songs (and met the artist). But I didn't capitalize on that potentially high-profile moment of success. But it's never too late for me to adopt a new mindset and focus on making positive actions instead of just engaging in positive thinking.

What I discovered my passion and ran with it? Through years of intense work and discovering a passion for addressing the potential extinction of cheetahs, Dr. Laurie Marker helped create an ecosystem in Namibia where integrated solutions that addressed economic, environmental, and agricultural issues of the affected region were initiated. Her work now involves transforming the quality of life and revealing economic opportunities for the residents of Namibia--in addition to promoting awareness of cheetah extinction. What if I continue to build a solid body of work and discover my passion?

The speakers at TEDx inspired me to ask myself about what is possible, on a personal level. The legendary media journalist Tom Brokaw implored the attended to pursue big ideas--and not become broken down in the pursuit of divisive little ideas. That is something that can become the basis of my What if curiosities.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Jealous Games I Don't Play

I've progressed greatly in my personal and professional growth over the past year. Despite few setbacks and frustrations, I've laid down the foundation for my learning activities and strategies for reaching professional goals. I've identified my personal brand, value proposition, and strengths. I've forged meaningful connections with experts in various fields, got involved in rewarding collaborations, and made several small bets which turned into solid wins. I've learned whose opinions and advices matter, and started not giving a damn about opinions of certain people. Following the focused path is paying off--others have noticed my penchant for lifelong learning, sharing information with enthusiasm, community-building, and transforming unthankful tasks into opportunities where my talents shine through.

Although there are obstacles on my road to awesome, I've noticed an absence of a certain roadblock which used to delay my journey: I have not felt jealousy in a very long time. Perhaps it's because I surround myself with inspiring highly-motivated people, stay hungry for learning opportunities, and realize that inertia won't magically grant me skills and knowledge. I simply don't have time for jealousy.

When I interact with my exceptional peers and learn about my new connects, I recognize the knowledge and experience that they possess. I realize that nothing was ever handed to them on platinum platters: these do-ers put in focused hours, make sacrifices, and motivate me by their bias towards action. When these awesome folks succeed, I'm genuinely happy. Their triumphs make me contemplate what is possible: opportunities which appear after putting in exceptional work, forums for daring and sharing greatly, and realization that I have more control over my own goals, happiness, and destiny than I thought was possible. Their wins are my wins. Their success stories are filed in my mental treasure house of memories. Their ambitions and accomplishments make me hungry.

It's all about the company that I choose to roll with, and I'm not down with the jealousy crew. How can I expect to grow and learn when I'm surrounded by naysayers and haters who constantly perpetuate a toxic culture of jealousy, and consistently tell me what I can't do? The possibilities are astounding when I disassociate myself from those folks and that line of thinking: instead of spending time mired in jealousy and expecting entitlement, I'm more interested in exploring the things that are within my reach--building relationships with influential people, pursuing learning opportunities, sharing knowledge, and enhancing my game. And jealousy has no place in my vision for the future.

Many of my past successes happened after putting in hours of focused effort, not after sitting on my ass and grumbling about how unfair life was. Jealousy didn't get me consistently respectable 5k running race results, successful certification exam scores, friendships with like-minded peers, an opportunity to meet one of my favorite musicians after winning a remix contest, or chances to give presentations as a credible subject matter expert in front of few hundred people. I've got a better game and I'm making things happen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Don't Bring Me Down

The inevitable always seems to happen. I attend an empowering and uplifting conference where I learn, participate, and contribute to the community of like-minded visionaries and creatives. For several days I am in company of strangers, acquaintances, friends, and kindred spirits with whom I share a passion for pushing the boundaries of my professional interests. I become engaged with the possibilities of changing the world, one document at a time--my euphoria over the recent Write the Docs conference is aptly captured in my peer's impressions of the event.

Then the harsh reality sets in. I return to work. The daring spirits of the peers and the community who pushes the boundaries of thoughts are replaced by a jarring work life full of inert clock-watching atmosphere and reactionary mentality. My hopeful spirits and drive collide headfirst against the attitude of "business as usual," "communication is other people's job," "you don't have permission to do this," and "it can't happen here." I'm surrounded by an atmosphere of cynicism towards transformative ideas and where some folks show up just to put in the hours. The progressive and the passionate are few and far in between (disclaimer: this is not an indictment of my employer, but rather my current situation--many former team leaders have invested in my curiosity about my professional trade and have introduced me to new ideas, networks, and communities).

So what are the possible strategies for coping with the brick wall of inertia and resistance? Here are couple of things that I'm going to focus on and see if they make a difference. After several previous experiences with The Big Letdown, I figured that it's time to take the "Dude, Let's Try This!" approach.

1. Share the enthusiasm of new experiences and knowledge learned with my various tribes: There is some crossover between the new tribe that I formed at the Write the Docs conference and my existing tribes--peers from my annual academic IT support conference (SIGUCCS), the pockets of progressive peers and departments at work, like-minded tech friends in the local community, my mentors, and friends in my social network. Instead of trying to win over the perpetually resistant, I'm going to put my finite energy towards sharing ideas with those who make a difference.

2. Strengthen and nurture new relationships: I made at least a dozen new connections at Write the Docs. Those folks who showed interest in connecting with me have found something interesting about how I carry myself and/or my thoughts. It's high time that I continue to engage the new tribe and nurture relationships throughout the year instead of disappearing into cyberspace for the next twelve months.

3. Take what I've learned at the conference and apply them while making small bets: There were many beautiful attitudes and approaches that I learned last week (including the beauty of conciseness, taking a novel-like approach to documentation, falling in love with various aspects of the writing processes, including documentation as part of the change process, and so on). When I want to be inspired and motivated, I just want to watch the videos from the conference presentations--evocations from the awesome conference will fill my consciousness, inspiring me to make awesome. I also want to read the words of wisdom from one of the event organizers, who wrote a very insightful article about transforming a culture of documentation.

Facing the stonewalling reality of resistance and inertia is frustrating. I've had several moments in the past week when I asked myself, "Why do we continue to do things over and over in stupid ways?" But maybe this time the outcome will be different. By focusing my energy on strengthening and enhancing my new and existing tribes with whom I share common passions, and not giving a flying shiitake about the culture which continue to perpetuate roadblocks, I will be in better position to contribute to lasting change. Focusing on my tribe of transformative culture clubs is a greater return on investment than spending energy on closed-loop information society.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby (Part 1)

At what point do you become knowledgeable at something? At what point can I say that I am "speaking with authority?" What separates a knowledgeable and remarkable authority from a plebeian hack or even a shady charlatan?

I've pondered these questions for a long time. Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule" of practicing one's craft is a threshold for becoming considered an expert at something. If that is indeed the case, the only thing that I truly mastered is the art of sleeping!

What is mastery? What makes someone knowledgeable? Knowledge mastery is a combination of many things: traditional learning, applying learned knowledge into real-world experiences, and willingly sharing knowledge with others in appropriate venues. A predisposition to lifelong learning and always challenging ones existing body of knowledge are also essential traits. You can be book-smart, but unless that learning is translated into tangible experience and/or shared with others who are interested in learning the topic, the information acquisition is useless.

Knowledge doesn't have to be confined to subjects in the conventional workplace or academia either. An area of expertise can be learned in arenas other than what is defined in a job classification or what is being offered in a course catalog at schools. I often find these non-conventional experts more credible than authoritative sources: whenever I'm traveling and want to make informed decisions about the quality of local microbrews or wine before consuming them, the local experts carry more cachet with me than those with traditional seal of approval (like big-name travel guides). Whenever I want to explore delicious pizza joints in Brooklyn, I give more credence to online resources which curate and crowd-source their recommendations from highly engaged group of contributors. I always review several such resources so I can weigh divergent opinions and discover context to frame new information. Another popular example of knowledge authority that I rely on is Wikipedia, which I use as a resource several times a day--mostly as a starting point for researching.

It's regrettable that in some areas of life, your credibility is based purely on job titles and/or certificates earned. Perhaps there's correlation to the mainstream society's emphasis on climbing the corporate ladder and earning more income as benchmarks for defining success. But being an expert has nothing to do with the size of your paycheck or what title you have bestowed on your business card. I've gleaned valuable knowledge in company of peers: not necessarily experts in sense of having a certain title or status, but experts in willingness to listen, share experiences, and contribute. Attending Barcamp Portland un-conference last weekend was a great example of this in action: I've absorbed invaluable suggestions for challenging myself to create and ship after spending an hour at an "Emotional Roadblocks to Getting Stuff Done" discussion. I didn't need to pay thousands of dollars to learn these ideas at a Human Resource seminar that is taught by traditional experts. I've often been moved and inspired by the music of local indie bands who exist for their love of creating and performing music, rather than by bland, contrived corporate pop acts.

So how do you get on the road to become knowledgeable?