Monday, January 27, 2014

The Neverending Stories

Over the past few years, I've encountered numerous articles, blog posts, and editorials which tout the importance of storytelling. I've seen the rising popularity of TED Talks, watched effective short talk formats being embraced at conferences and events, and noticed an uprising of "how-to" books, tutorials, and videos which impart tips for effective storytelling. I admit that I have been smitten by the power of storytelling, and bitten by the art of presentations bug. I am a passionate believer in the power of story.

But just like anything else which has gained currency and popularity, storytelling can be abused and exploited as means for profit. Sometimes I feel that storytelling is one of the latest buzzwords in a corporate context--destined to land in a Bullshit Bingo game square adjacent to "leverage," "think outside the box," and "synergy." Storytelling can also spiral out of control when the message rambles endlessly and pointlessly, or when the messenger adopts the tone of an omnipotent expert. Perhaps storytelling has jumped the shark? Not a chance!

Humans have told stories over many centuries, and will continue to do so even after the media and business sectors move on to the Next Big Thing. Storytelling will always have an important place for strengthening communities and bringing people together. I'm not a fan of those "get rich quick by storytelling" mentality: I prefer honesty, authenticity, and community-building intent behind stories. And I want to learn how I can better share my stories in those manners.

Many of the moving stories that I've heard in recent years resonate with ideas that I feel strong affinity for. At World Domination Summit 2013, Tess Vigeland shared with three thousand strangers how she had immersed herself into a scary place of uncertainty (WDS talk here). Jia Jiang gave the audience hope and levity when he confronted his fear of rejection head-on and embarked on his Rejection Therapy project (WDS talk here). At a recent Lightning Talks event at work, a colleague shared his passion for aiding the less fortunate people in the local community. Another colleague shared her enthusiasm and expertise in winter cycling. These storytellers, whether at national conferences or at a local skunkworks event, exude resonance, hope, insight, inspiration, and call to action (using the aforementioned examples, I have stopped fearing potential changes to my job situation, ceased treating rejections as catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions, raised my awareness for assisting those in need, and started cycling into work during cold-ass weather).

I want to share my stories for same reasons these inspiring storytellers do: to connect with and relate to the audience, to bring people together, to offer hope to others, and to make people laugh. I want to raise awareness that storytellers are not perfect and all-knowing: my life experiences involve acknowledging imperfections, fears, and vulnerabilities, and turning adversities into positive progressions. I want to learn what aspects of storytelling that I can improve upon: connecting with the audience, creating the story arc, and striving for brevity are all areas that I can get better at.

Choosing which stories to share is important. Most of my audience are lifelong learners who embrace possibilities and are actively paving their own roads to awesome. They will resonate more favorably if I share my List of 100 Dreams with them instead of my 99 Problems. I could share stories about my failure to get promoted at my job for the past four years, but I want to instead share stories about how learning new skills and showing enthusiasm for others' projects have led me to establish strong relationships with influential friends and peers. I could bemoan my regret about never hitting a home run during my youth baseball days, but I want to focus on how learning to play seven different positions over that time led me to appreciate flexibility. I could harp on my experiences as a failed twenty-first chair clarinetist in junior high, but instead regale about how I took advantage of an opportunity to switch instruments to make a All-State band twice during high school. I could lament about my aborted one-person synthpop band which disbanded before releasing an album, or count my blessings that my endeavors led me to other musicians whom I have befriended (and subsequently joined their groups).

Choosing which stories to share leads to different outcomes. When I focus on telling stories from a place of misery, misfortune, and scarcity, I attract drama and chase away potentially interesting people. Sharing stories from a place of possibility, authenticity, and abundance leads to encountering many amazing people who eventually invigorate my life. Jonathan Fields' Good Life Project offers this insight: "Life is a story, if you wouldn't read the one you're telling, write a different ending."

Monday, January 20, 2014

Be Attentive, B-E Attentive, B-E A-T-T-E-N-T-I-V-E!

I enjoy making plans and charting a direction for how I spend my time. Ideally I want to focus my attention on those activities that will help me get within the vicinity of my intended goals. Maintaining sustained and focused efforts over a period of time has led to many awesome experiences and learning opportunities, and I want to ingrain those habits that reinforce my learning, fitness, career, and social goals.

I also embrace serendipity. Amazing discoveries, awesome friendships, and new opportunities have entered my life even though I was not seeking them out initially. These awesome chance events have shaped the direction of how I spend my time.

Is this a paradox? Can planning and serendipity co-exist in a rewarding synergy? Definitely! I love planning but also allow unexpected things to happen in my daily activities. I want to structure my 168 hours every week but also create spaces for what Angela Maiers calls “tactical serendipity.” I want to allow for what my friend and fellow writer Jackie Dotson refers to as, “Dude, Let’s Try This!” opportunities.

Adopting either of the extremes—designing my waking hours with rigid structure or leaving everything that happens to chance—doesn’t reflect how I want to live. I want to make incremental progress towards big-picture goals (e.g. running 10k races this year, learning and mastering new songs with my bands, earning a Certified Associate in Project Management certification, relocating to a lovely smaller apartment) while enjoying these processes. But I don’t want these goals to consume all of my waking hours. Conversely, I love encountering new opportunities, meeting people, and going where the wind carries me, but I don’t want to wander aimlessly through life. I am somewhere between the two extremes. I often sway back and forth with the wind.

I’ve discovered that making time for serendipity and being attentive are excellent adoptable habits. Pursuing a direction while being open to random events allows for exploring adjacent possible spaces, evaluating the relevancy of the current direction, and making necessary changes to reorient my goals. Being exposed to engaging ideas and philosophies (e.g. powerful storytelling, short talk formats, culture-building, and lean methodologies) were influential in my decision to stop trying to keep up with technical certifications for IT support: my career goals have shifted accordingly.

Few days ago, I noticed a runner while I was performing errands couple of neighborhoods away from home. It never occurred to me until that observation that I could possibly incorporate running in that neighborhood as part of my exercise routine. About 95 percent of my running sessions follow the same route, and I have become ingrained in the habit of following the tried-and-true loop during workouts. I learned that a running course to the new neighborhood and back would be roughly the same distance that I normally run. Today I ran out to the new neighborhood and back—and found the experience exhilarating. Moments like being greeted by the bright and brilliant sun when I reached the top of the hill, seeing maneki neko statues inside a gorgeous golden-yellow house, and appreciating the ambience and the period architecture of the charming residential neighborhood made the new course a compelling win. I also learned that I can incorporate parts of my original, familiar running route when I start experimenting with running longer distances. Serendipity!

Being attentive about my surroundings has also inspired possibilities. I recently discovered a new bakery restaurant and a nifty-looking bar in my neighborhood, which I will investigate. These new places may be comfortable for a blogging session, a skunkworks meeting, a team-building event, or social outing. Or maybe not. Either way, they are experiences to be discovered. Unearthing these places happened because one day I decided to walk ten blocks to a bus stop that was farther away instead of waiting idly at a bus stop for fifteen minutes while waiting for the bus.

It is a blessing to encounter awesome people and discover new ideas while partaking in diverse activities. I met many amazing people while playing recreational sports—these people have inspired me with their passions and goals. I crossed paths with many talented musicians while playing shows—these people have become great friends and even future bandmates. People whom I have met through my work have encouraged me to unleash my creative tendencies, question the status quo, and create community- and culture-building movements. Being a part of many tribes have blessed me with opportunities to learn about others’ experiences, interact with other writers, share my experiences and stories, and participate in a community of supportive beings who want to be remarkable.

Establishing a direction and embracing randomness can work harmoniously. As long as I keep my senses engaged and be attentive to what is happening around me, I can continue to spend my time in engaging and vibrant ways.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Looking, Learning, Moving On

In keeping with my anti-tradition, I didn't make a New Year's Resolution for the year. The concept of waiting until beginning of an arbitrary date before implementing changes seems absurd to me: I don't need permission from the calendar for me to start doing epic shit. And lots of epic stuff happened during the year 2013.

Most of my learning objectives and passions were not on my radar at beginning of 2013. I didn't reflect back at my life trajectory and bemoan about those resolutions and desires which failed to materialize. Had I made resolutions and clung onto the notion of meeting those goals as a sole basis for defining success, then I had failed miserably in 2013.

I didn't get the dream job that I had interviewed for back in January of last year. I didn't extricate myself away from a work environment that was full of waste, stress, and toxicity. I didn't make any headway info making a relocation to the East Coast a reality. I didn't lose twenty pounds. I still can't fit into those awesome Uniqlo shirts that I bought back in 2011 without my midsection looking rotund.

But serendipity and building my career capital led to many amazing things that happened during the past year. Most of them were not even only radar back on January 1, 2013. I learned the basic concepts of lean concepts and processes, which I have integrated in my work and personal life: critically examining my relationships with other people, pursuits, belongings, or activities to see if they are adding value to my life or not has been a great barometer for reducing the clutter in my life. Adopting lean is not just for manufacturing work: I am convinced that it is a viable way of living.

And through exposure to many happenings this year—the various professional conferences, World Domination Summit, TEDx Portland, Wordstock 2013, and the skunkworks passion project that I am involved with—I learned the transformative impact of storytelling. The art of telling stories is what brings people together to rally behind great notions, to place human touch to abstract ideas, and to create community. There are many stories to be told, and I am going to tell the stories and help create a space where others can tell their stories. I feel so fortunate that I am able to do the latter with a lunchtime Lightning Talks project at work, with an amazing co-conspirator.

I also learned how to apply my passion for creating an inclusive culture. I have promoted inclusion in my social circles, in the workplace, in my professional tribes, and elsewhere where I felt that a sense of belonging was needed. I am forever grateful that a friend complimented me about my "inclusive" nature when I first met her in person back in the mid-2000s: I have accepted and embraced that promoting inclusion is in my personal brand—and I am running with it.

There were many unexpected teachers, kind souls, and otherwise amazing people who appeared out of nowhere in the past year. They encouraged me to learn, grow, share, and open my heart. They were not on my New Year's Resolution 2013 Stakeholder Registry, but these lovely beings helped me live a kick-ass year. They dared me to feel, take chances, and make deals. They urged me to stop being an island who was shying from trying. They convinced me that there is no future without tears and uncertainty—but it is worth taking chances every day. They told me that it's okay for me to be a creative person, and encouraged me to reconnect with my dormant creative pursuits.

So did I fail in my pursuit to attain the mythical 2013 New Year's Resolutions? Perhaps. Did I learn more from new opportunities and serendipities than from an outlined list of preordained objectives? Hell yes! Do I regret not making any New Year's Resolutions last year? Hell no! Instead of writing inflexible and firm resolutions in stone at beginning of every calendar year, I see each day as a blank canvas full of possibilities. I want to open myself to entertaining new directions and new connections every day.

Many of the best plans that I entertained at beginning of last year have been mislaid. But it didn't matter since most of the lessons learned involved new interests that were not in the original plans. Whether they were in study or in play, the serendipities and chance experiences led to the the forming of new connections and new passions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

And If We Threw It All Away

Recent life events have influenced me to postpone indefinitely my plans for relocating to the East Coast. I have an abundance of professional and growth opportunities that I want to immerse myself with over the next few years, including completing certification programs at a local university, studying for and earning a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification, and taking my recent adventures in presentations and storytelling to the next level. There is unfinished business that I want to attend to. I have also realized that I have connections and friendships in the area that I want to cherish. My roots will continue to be in Portland indefinitely.

But there is one thing I want to do within the next six months, and that is to find a new apartment to live in. I have lived in the same place since I moved here on August 31, 1995, and the space does not suit or reflect my personality anymore. I have become extremely disenchanted with my living situation, especially since I no longer feel the need to “tough it out before moving away.” I want to move into a smaller space with reduced square footage and charm. I started the process of decluttering my apartment this week in preparation for the eventual relocation. Spending hours evaluating the things that will be part of my future and what will be left behind involved rethinking my material philosophy and the meaning of home as an engaging space, and expending sheer amount of mental energy on decision-making processes.

In the past year, I spent eight weeks living outside my home, at housesitting stints and out-of-town vacations and conferences. Those weeks of relying mainly on the contents of my suitcase and backpacks were liberating. I felt unencumbered with less stuff around me. I also became fascinated by the location-independent lifestyles of several people whom I had met at World Domination Summit 2013. Absolute minimalism is unlikely in my future, but it is always an inspiration to learn from those who value mobility.

Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier At Home inspired me to think about my relationship with possessions. During the decluttering process, I asked myself, “How—and how often—will I interact with this object?” I gave myself two rough guidelines for keep-or-toss criteria: six months for unopened pantry foodstuff, and three years for other material possessions. Since keeping stuff around that is rarely used is wasteful in context of lean thinking (clutter contributes to several components of muda—or waste—including Transport, Inventory, Motion, and Overproduction), I asked myself whether or not keeping something around would add value to my furnishings and life. It wasn’t long before I got rid of excess hair gels, backups to backup pants, tubs of unused jar candles, and other stuff that I had kept around the apartment for “just in case” scenarios. I got rid of a bag full of black socks, which I had set aside since last summer: my plans for making Gothic sock monkeys did not materialize, so out went the socks. My crafts night project of making bookmarks out of magazine pictures never happened, so out went the old magazines. I finally got rid of silverware that I had ganked from the college cafeteria in the early 1990s: I guess I never bothered to host a dinner party for twenty people at my place.

I also struggled with environmental concerns while throwing things away. I tossed almost dozen trash bags of stuff into the dumpster this week. I thought about how detrimental it was to the environment throwing away half-used things that still had some potential consumability, but my discontent caused by the clutter trumped my environmental concerns. What I want to do, however, is to critically think about usefulness of things at the stage when I obtain them—not five years later while decluttering the apartment. Will I find meaningful uses for a pen set within next three years in order for me to justify falling for the current 75 percent off sale price? Do I really need dozen containers of rice milk just because the carton pricing is at 25 percent discount? Perhaps reframing my thoughts about environmental impact of stuff will save lots of grief (and sore arms) when I am hauling bags of possessions to the dumpster.

Sorting through numerous possessions also resulted in decision fatigue. For every item that I was deciding its fate about, I asked myself, “Will I interact with this? Can this be replaced if I need it again in the future? Will someone else find this to be useful? Is it better for me to toss this away? Or take it to Goodwill? Or try to make money off it on eBay?” Repeating that numerous times during a purge session drained my mental energy, and left me with less energy to engage in other activities this week.

Seeing objects which reminded me of my former aspirations, ambitions, and priorities were weird. I purged piles of books and manuals on computer technology (the stuff that I thought I would eventually need to learn but never made time to do so), computer peripherals (stuff like backup docking station for an obsolete Palm Pilot) and excess cables, boxes of inkjet-compatible CD labels (did I really think I was going to become a CD demo-making empire?), and college textbooks. Perhaps they may be of interest to other people, but they are no longer in my life. I want to reinforce my shifting life priorities by evaluating my possessions on a frequent basis, instead of every few years.

I want my interactions with stuff to be meaningful. One of Gretchen Rubin’s commandments from The Happiness Project is to “spend out”that is, using and interacting with things instead of saving them for a rainy day, rejecting the hoarding mentality, and letting things go. Unused things can be almost as wasteful as throwing away good, usable stuff. I want to care about the stuff that I am interacting with: fixing loose buttons on favorite articles of clothing should not feel like a chore, but an opportunity to improve my happiness with them. And when they no longer add value, it’s time to get rid of them. I want to have a good idea of what my apartment inventory consists of. Unexpected surprises, such as finding a long-forgotten book, are nice from time to time, but I want those moments to become a rare exception.

For over a year, I have maintained a clutter-free and minimalist cubicle at work. I often get asked by peers if I plan on leaving my job, since I had purged crap out of my space. Now is the time for me to get rid of stuff at home: I want my home to be a place with things that I can be excited about interacting with.