Last night, I had the privilege of attending what was likely the last stage performance of the incomparable Meaghan Smith for quite some time. Phenomenal person. If you don’t have her stuff on your iPod, do yourself a favor and get it now. You won’t be disappointed.
During intermission, my wife and I happened to run into some friends out in the lobby. She, a successful, award-winning author; he, a successful, award-winning singer/songwriter. We chatted for a bit about her current work and about his upcoming tour, and they asked how I was doing.
“Uh, good! Busy, yep,” was what I managed to say.
The wonderful badge of the modern-day schmuck that proclaims “Yes, I am like everyone else. So much, in fact, that the most exciting thing I can think of is that I’ve managed to keep myself busy all year.”
I hated myself at that moment, for saying it; we ended the chat a few minutes later and went our separate ways to catch the second half of the performance.
I rolled that word around my head during the remainder of the performance.
I was still thinking about it this morning when I woke. Really? Busy? That was the best I could do?
In fact, it wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to say.
The real issue? I feel a lot of competence shame when in the presence of highly successful people.
‘Cause, y’know, I have an office job. I take my kids to McDonald’s. I shop at Wal-Mart (reluctantly, mind you, and only when absolutely necessary) and the last award I won was probably my Grade 8 first-place win in the Regional Science Fair in the Environmental Science category. I don’t think I ever cashed the $25 cheque they gave me, come to think of it.
But what I really wanted to say was “Yeah! I have a ton of interesting stuff going on!”
I just closed off four freelance book editing projects in the last year – the most ever for me. And dang it, they were some of the best (and most successful, sales-wise) that I’ve done to date.
I built a wood-burning stove entirely from metal scrap, by hand, which now sits proudly in the small shed out back providing warmth to me during the winter months as I enjoy the occasional cigar during “me”-time.
I just shot and edited a video review of protein bars – bars made from crickets. And yup, they were hella tasty!
I’m reverse-engineering a recipe for chocolate tequila and I’m tinkering with flavor infusing my own cigars with the essences of vanilla and rum.
I’m renovating my basement by my own hand – framing, drywalling, door hanging, painting and trim and finish work. Nothing I haven’t done before, mind you, but you always learn something more about the finer details of those skills each time you exercise them.
But something held me back from saying those things. I think it’s one of those invisible scripts you tell yourself your whole life: “I’m not that interesting, really. Just an uncool geek.” Those invisible scripts that follow you from childhood into adulthood, that tell you everyone else is So Much More Interesting Than You. Because you’re just average, and what you think is awesome and neat, to the rest of the world, is Eye-Rollingly Uncontestedly Uncool.
Someday I might get over those scripts. Someday, I’ll feel proud of what I do and I’ll tell all of the above – and more! – to anyone who asks “So, how are you?”
Someday, when I’m not so…

Picking the Magic Projects

It hurts to admit you can’t do everything.

I want to be one of those people who manage a staggeringly large list of projects, both personal and professional. I want to go to bed every single night with my to-dos to-done and a clean page in my day planner for the next day.

I want to find myself thinking, at 2:38 pm in the afternoon, “Gee, I have everything taken care of. Perhaps I should spend the next two hours thinking about my 50,000 foot goals.”

I want people to think I’m goddamn magic.

However, by 2:38 pm I find my life looks more like the following:

I’ve tried. And I’ve sucked. Work done in the digital creative economy just does not conform to neat little borders and timeslots and such. Parkinson’s Law notes that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, but Belanger’s Corollary states that “should said work involve a computer, then the linear nature of time will go completely out the window and the work will morph into an n-dimensional being that defies any rational laws.”

I have my systems, my lifehacks, and my checklists, but eventually I hit a spot where paring things back was really the only way to save my sanity. But GAWD, it’s hard to pare things back when you love everything that you do. I love the volunteer projects, the little on-the-side projects, the big projects at the 9-5, and the hobby projects that I’ve had kicking around for a while.

My first instinct was to say “Okay, anything that doesn’t make me money goes. Good-bye, voracious time-sink of non-paying work!” But I found that wasn’t a terribly good metric to measure the usefulness of a piece of work. Sometimes, the biggest black holes come from the smallest paying projects – the ones where you tell yourself “Yeah, bro, I can knock that out in about 10 hours” and then find yourself at the keyboard, the sun just beginning to rise on the horizon, finally shipping that damn “little” project that you’ve killed yourself all week to get out on time.

And often I find the non-paying work turns out to be incredibly important. Fixing broken USB sticks for your wife’s co-workers. Resurrecting pictures from SD cards that went for an unexpected swim. Reading up on community projects and figuring out how you can contribute. Anything you do that helps improve the quality of life for others, even just a little, is usually worth the time.

So if neither time, nor money, act as good measures of the worth of a project, then what do we use as a metric?

Well, I suspect the true answer is slightly different for everyone, but I’ve realized that the worth of a project can largely be based on its potential for horizontal self-growth (insert dick joke here). Even though I might be skilled at something that’s financially very attractive, if I’m not learning anything new or stretching myself in a certain manner, then the worth of that project goes down significantly.

For example, I’ve built a lot of WordPress sites in the past. There’s no shortage of paying customers who want a custom website, and I’ve managed to pick up a bit of mad WP skillz over time. But with each successive WP install, the potential for learning goes down.

Could I get more and more intimate with the WP codex, develop my own WP themes from scratch and become a CSS expert? I could, but that’s growing in a vertical fashion, and I live by the mantra that learning enough about a technology to satisfy 80% of clients who need it is good enough. Sure, there’s reason to go the extra 20% and get to the guru level, but that enters the realm of diminishing returns. The time and effort (and possibly money) spent to get to the 100% level is usually better allocated to learning about something new.

It feels a little like chasing the shiny all the time (SQUIRREL!), but quite unexpectedly, it’s kept me sane for a while now. It feeds my inner monster that loves to consume knowledge and skills for breakfast and regurgitate cool things for dinner. My latest project is figuring out how to leverage the Twilio SMS and voice message API to act as customer contact portals. (Spoiler: It’s kind of neat.) My next challenge is to turn that into a product somehow that pays. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.