"Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous." —Albus Dumbledore

 

As Leon’s December Writing Challenge co-editor, I’ve enjoyed reading all of this year’s submissions, a rich mixture of wishes not to disturb the lessons life teaches, a careful sprinkling of re-dos, a few winning lottery numbers, and a healthy set of Back to the Future references. But as much as Marty and the Professor may have beckoned so many to consider the potential benefits and risks of time travel, I felt they more than received their due respects. Instead, as my family re-watches the Harry Potter films each Yuletide, I think of Harry, and of Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner.

 

Not to debate the technicalities of the original Time-Turner’s five-hour travel limitation, nor the potential added benefits of “True” Time-Turners or anything involving the Malfoys, my basic takeaway from the story was this: if’n you could travel through time, you’d end up with exactly the same result when you returned. Whether you credit Niven or Novikov, you can’t do anything to the past that hasn’t already happened.

 

I’m not sure a spoiler warning is necessary for a 14-year-old movie, but when Harry realizes that his father isn’t coming to cast a Patronus – and that in fact, he’s his only [and best] hope – he’s able to be exactly who he’s always been, and who he would always be.

Image 1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

 

Harry’s charm wards off an army of Dementors, and saves his godfather and himself. He was who he needed to be – he didn’t need anyone more than himself in that critical moment. And when the moment came, he rose to the occasion. Every single time I watch that scene, I cry for the beauty of it.

 

Time travel wasn’t the solution to Harry’s problem – he was. It only gave him the perspective to realize what he needed to do. It didn’t change it, because he’d already done it.

 

In many ways, the travel we each do through time – the travel that brings us to the present – offers us all the same perspective. We are who we are because of the lives we’ve led, the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone.

 

So, knowing I couldn’t change the past in putting a Time-Turner around my neck to visit my past self, what might I tell her? Nothing I’d say would cheapen the gifts of my hard-won lessons. I couldn’t undo great mistakes and rob myself of the wisdom they brought, nor make minor changes that would rewrite entire chapters of my life.

 

If anything, I’d want to give her a hug, and tell her that everything is turning out precisely as it should – complete with imperfections, disappointments, and tragedy, yes, but also with deep happiness, joy, and hope. I’d want to encourage her that even when all seemed lost, when every choice she thought would lead towards the life she desperately wanted [or thought she did] only led to more pain, frustration, and shame, that a better future was still out there. I’d tell her that even when everything seemed lost, and help didn’t seem to be coming, to hang on, and just keep going.

 

I think of Harry and Hermione waiting in the forest, Harry absolutely certain that his father would save Sirius and himself, growing more agitated and panicked that help wasn’t coming, that hope was fading. I’d like to think Current Me would be like Hermione to Past Me’s Harry, and reminding him that he’s enough – that I am enough. That I can take care of myself, that I can get through the darkest night, that I’m stronger than I think I am.

 

In all the stories our writers shared with this year’s challenge, I was impressed with the number of us who focused on this very lesson. No, we can’t undo the past, and in spite of perhaps even some very dark days, we really wouldn’t want to do so. We recognize the role our challenges play in bringing us to where we are in life. We benefit from the well-timed reminder that life will get better, and from those around us who believe in us as much as we should believe in ourselves.

 

And as we have traveled through time to meet ourselves today, I like to think our past selves would be pretty impressed by how we’ve all turned out. By how we’ve met obstacles both big and small, celebrated wins, learned from losses, and how we cherish our families, friends, and the good things in life, however we see them. And as we head into a new year – into the very future itself – I hope we all choose to encourage ourselves to be strong, to believe in ourselves, and to remember that we are enough.

My grandpa used to say that 99% of the things you worry about never happen… which just goes to show that all that worrying works.

 

Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like that’s my life motto.

 

My name is Alli, and I am a worrier.

 

A little bit of worry is healthy. It’s what keeps you from being totally reckless and potentially in a bad spot. After all, like Grandpa said, worrying about bad things prevents them from happening, right?

But worrying can also prevent good things from happening.

 

I’ve gradually come to realize that when you worry less and live more, amazing things start to happen. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities become realities. Facing your fears ends up bringing you irreplaceable joy. Taking a risk pays off and might turn out to be one of the smartest things you’ve done.

 

Younger Alli, remember all the times you were worried that the upside-down rollercoaster was going to be too scary or too intense for you, but your sister made you go on it anyways? You ended up loving that ride, and you caught the adrenaline bug. Nowadays, your worry about rollercoasters is proportionate to the number of loops they contain, but you’re getting a lot braver.

 

Younger Alli, remember that time in elementary school when you unexpectedly made a really good friend because you stopped worrying what the popular kids thought of you? They made fun of her, but you saw her for who she truly is: a crazy fun, eccentric, beautiful soul.

 

Younger Alli, do you remember the time when you spent an entire summer having to re-study for the AP European History test because the entire school had to retake their exams? That caused you a lot of worry and stress, on top of all the worry and stress that’s a natural part of being a teenager. But it turned out okay in the end. You did even better the second time around.

 

Younger Alli, be reassured by the fact that while I’m telling you that you should worry less, I still struggle every day to take my own advice.

 

This year, I moved halfway across the country, away from family, away from my newborn nephew. Let me tell you, I worried a LOT about all the things that could go wrong with that. But everything fell into place perfectly. Even though I’m far away from my family, moving was a really good decision. (In fact, if I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t have written this blog post.)

 

I recently started playing this really cool, really fun, really nerdy game called Dungeons & Dragons. I immediately fell in love with playing it, but when I started actually RUNNING the game, that came with a lot of worry. What if I’m not a good Dungeon Master? What if my players don’t like me? What if I have to break play to look something up? But as I get more experience with Dungeons & Dragons, I’m finding it a lot easier to not worry, and the games start getting even more fun.

 

Do some of the things I worry about merit worry? Certainly. But I see it over and over and over again: when I dial down the worry, good things happen.

 

Turns out Grandpa was right. (Well, maybe not the part where the worrying is what keeps bad things from happening, but that’s beside the point.) In most cases, my worries are just head trash holding me back.

 

Younger Alli—and present-day Alli—you really need to worry less and live more.

For starters, I went back and forth on that subject line. Will people even want to read this after seeing “millennial” in the title? Ironically, that unconscious logic sets the tone almost too perfectly for this post.

 

Having grown up in a culture that has so rapidly changed with my generation, I’ve struggled greatly with the stereotypes that come therein. If I’m being honest with myself, aside from my birth date, I don’t view myself as a millennial. Boldness. Entitlement. Purpose. Confidence. I could go on, but you’re living amongst us, too. You know.

 

Growing up, I had plenty of friends, but I never had a sense of belonging. My parents divorced when I was 4. My parents couldn’t settle amicably, so I was sent to a therapist to help determine which parent would be the better fit. The therapist lied in court about who I wanted to live with full-time, and right then began a steep precipice with being able to trust others. I went on to live in a tumultuous environment while my other parent lived 3,590 miles away.

 

I’m sure you’re wondering—why is she recapping her childhood? We all suffered growing up in some fashion. I promise, it’s a critical part of the narrative and I’ll get there quickly.

 

When my family dissolved, I was spirited away from the one parent that I felt was a better fit for me. I felt alone, isolated, and played the "average" child around school and with friends. For the most part, my friends had parents who were actively involved. They had what they needed to be successful, at least from my perspective. I was embarrassed to admit what would happen at my house, why I didn’t have lunch, or why I didn’t have sleepovers, so I became a chameleon to create the illusion that I was one of them. I never expected anything because if something was going to get done, I did it. I didn’t have a disciplinarian or an encourager; I simply led with what I thought was the right thing (and bless my heart, I was wrong so many times).

 

Through this, I became extremely independent at a very young age. To the point that I pushed relationships away because I would get irritated and quickly shut down. I was so used to people going in and out of my life, I didn’t understand what it took to maintain healthy relationships. I began leading a life of what I didn’t want instead of what I did want.

 

When I began my career, that’s when I really started to notice how much my youth affected me. They [millennials] went into every meeting with a level of confidence that I was enamored with. When we had conversations around our career goals, they knew exactly what they were going to do for the next 20 years. And what I was enthralled with was their acceptance of failure. Was it because they had more experience? Was it because they knew things I didn’t? How were they so comfortable? Yet again, I felt like I didn’t belong.

 

As I matured, both personally and professionally, I would stretch myself so thin to fix anything that I believed had value so I didn’t have to watch it fall. I would do things just to get them done. It was the only way I believed it would get done. I remember an old boss of mine would make comments that I was an “old soul,” while complaining how their entire team was a team of millennials, and this enhanced my disdain with the association therein. Sure, it was meant to be a compliment, but it surfaced an emotion that I execrated: a sense of belonging.

 

With all this, what I would tell my younger self (and if I’m being honest, myself today):

  1. Things will always work themselves out. You don’t need to fix everything.
  2. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing if you’re fulfilled in what you’re doing.
  3. You need close relationships. Quality over quantity is key.
  4. Sometimes good enough is more valuable than perfection.
  5. Have a healthy level of skepticism but try to assume good intent when possible.
  6. Trust in others. They have your back more than you might assume.
  7. Trust yourself to be right. You’re smarter than you think.
  8. Celebrate your wins. You deserve recognition sometimes.
  9. Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t.

 

And finally, it was at this very moment that I realized—I am a millennial, and that’s OK. Things failed terribly in my life, and that’s OK. I missed out on having a traditional upbringing, and that’s OK. I’m still young and learning, and that’s OK. I belong, and I needed to stop questioning that in order to move forward.

 

Lastly, because I can’t end without a bit of humor. Even though the stigma is there, our [millennial] principles aren’t terrible. At least we don’t have to explain what the Tide Pod challenge was.

In all honesty, my immediate thought having sat down to write this is: should I even say anything to my younger self? At my current stage of life, I have an amazing family, a successful business, and enough close friends to be happy. What if something I said to my younger self changes all this?!

 

Should we look back at actions and decisions we have taken in life and guide ourselves to do something differently? This, as no doubt has been surfaced many times in this series, is something you can philosophise to the point of madness. There are multiple dimensions to this, which could be swept away by a “don’t live by regrets” mentality. I most certainly agree that dwelling on the past invites negativity into your thoughts, but I am also a strong believer in the adage that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

 

If you have ever read a personal development or “secret of my success” book, the power of positivity cannot be understated. Preventing negative thoughts, which most often come from looking back at regrets from your past, can have dramatic impacts on people’s lives. Sadly, there are people who have one incident, something that happened in a split second, that shapes their life from that moment on. For some, it is simply not possible to control thoughts looking to the past.

 

So, the question remains, if you could, would you tell your younger self something that would change the direction of your life?

 

Well here goes…

 

===========================================================================

 

An Open Letter to Younger Me (circa 1985)

 

Hello me!

 

Well this letter is going to come as a bit of a surprise, and don’t even ask how much the stamp cost!

 

I have been given the opportunity to write this letter and speak to you in a way I hope will let you know you are already on the right path. Let me (us) be clear, you don’t know it, but who you are now will only grow and improve. Your insecurities and lack of understanding of your future are NOT unique; in fact, you are MEANT to feel this way.

 

I won’t say too much about the future, as I cannot risk you changing too much about what life you create for me at this point, but I can say there is so much for you to be proud of.

 

You are feeling that your child and teenage years go so slowly and that becoming an adult is so far away, but please, please realize that it comes sooner than you are actually prepared for, but more importantly than that, make the most of NOW. I won’t patronize you and tell you that your childhood is the best time of your life, as while that is not far from the truth, there is so much to look forward to.

 

Shocking truth alert… you are an introvert and you currently think that your shyness is a weakness. This is not the case. Many of the positive things you achieve in life and the influence you have on your family, friends, and relationships are based on your thoughtfulness and empathy. It took a while, but once you learnt to embrace this fact, the happier we became. This will open up the word “yes” more, and yes is a word that makes things happen. It enables us to see, do, experience, and learn more.

 

Remember when you wrote out hundreds of lines from the ZX Spectrum computer magazine in Basic, typed Run, and spent the next few hours seeing how many typos prevented the program from running? Then the excitement of a simple sprite moving around a screen, when the code was finally correct. This is only the start of the adventure into how computing affects your life in the future and the start of a lifelong passion for technology (and gadgets).

 

I am going to ask you to do a couple of things differently and only a couple:

 

  • You will get glandular fever. Do NOT take this lightly. You are not invincible and if you don’t fully rest it out, it will have a huge impact.
  • An invite to Manchester will come along—get the train!
  • Say yes to that dance at the Rose Wilmot disco. I know you can’t dance (and you already know you never will with style and grace), but that is not the point.

 

Time’s up… See you in 2018!

My advice to my younger self?

 

To compare is to despair.

 

I think about how much angst, stress, and time I would have saved had I appreciated this when I was younger. I also would have spared myself some seriously questionable fashion and style choices (say it with me, bangs are BAD on T Nels).

 

And I didn’t grow up in the age of social media with its nearly endless stream of comparative fodder. Small blessings.

 

To compare is to despair.

 

I tell myself this every day. It’s been my mantra for the last two years and started with a dear friend who I’ve known for nearly 20 years. She’s my “sister from another mister” and the godparent of my children.

 

High-profile in our industry, she’s pursued by organizations to pontificate on all things brand and social. She hob-nobs with impressive glitterati and has interviewed a former First Lady. She manages a large global customer success team and navigates interactions with titans of industry each and every day with grace and confidence. She’s polished, poised, never fails to send the perfectly written thank you note (and her kids do, too!), and her Christmas cards are ALWAYS on time. 

 

She is my mother’s FAVORITE daughter (and I’m an only child).

 

For years, I struggled with this. How could she be at the top of her game, while I felt that I was just getting by? Our paths were largely the same: we graduated from the same university, started our careers at the same company, married around the same time… While my biggest, unique accomplishment is having seen every single episode of Law & Order SVU. At least twice.

 

One day, I stopped. I took a deep breath and realized that we each made choices that lead us down our respective paths. I can’t speak for her, but I wouldn’t change any of the choices that I made, because they were best for me.

 

I chose to have my kiddos early rather than put them off for my career, because I was already tired.

 

I chose to stay in Austin rather than travel for other opportunities, because I love the heat and love this town.

 

I chose a career that puts me more in the background, because I love to see others shine.

 

I chose to binge-watch all manner of TV shows, because I prefer the comfort and quiet of home to a packed schedule of networking events.

 

Sure, I could have picked a different path, jumped to page 23 instead of page 56 in my “Choose Your Own Adventure” to be where she is. But, then again, I might have ended up in an entirely different place, missing all of the things I cherish today.

 

I realized that not only was upward social comparison unproductive, but that downward social comparison was also doing something funky to me: making me less sensitive and appreciative of other people’s unique situations. Turns out the “compare and despair” thing actually works both ways. 

 

So now, I do my best each day to take a step back and stop myself before I compare myself to anyone else. I am not always successful, but I’m at least more thoughtful about it now. I find that I’m better at celebrating my bigger accomplishments, and more appreciative and prouder of my smaller ones, too. I stopped sweating every tiny difference, every little choice, and just settled into what was right for me.

 

And, I find that I have a lot more grace and goodwill to go around.

Instead of boring you all with a lengthy essay, I compiled a list of ten items that I would tell my younger self, the final three of which are powerful quotes from two of my favorite thinkers of all time.

 

Without further ado, here are the ten things I would tell my younger self:

 

1) Find something you’re good at that you can’t live without, and do it at all cost. This is what you’re meant to give to this world and what will most satisfy you.

 

2) Your parents, teachers, and society, really, in fact, and without a doubt, don’t know everything, and neither will you. So, have fun, do point #1, and don’t take life too seriously.

 

3) Most importantly, be a good person, be happy, and always be grateful for good health. That we know of, we only get one life to live, so make the most of it and cherish every moment.

 

4) Be reasonably confident, above all, to protect yourself from stupidly confident people. (Note: This is a partial interpretation of Charles Bukowski’s quote, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”)

 

5) Your “heart” feels what your brain cannot “know;” in other words, do not ever disregard your gut instinct about someone or something.

 

6) Going to a top-tier university, or having a well-paid “dream job,” are both overrated and loads of unnecessary, boring hard work if you’re not doing something that you’re passionate about.

 

7) Do not regret listening to and empathizing with people that do not know how to do the same back. This is anyone’s greatest strength, because you learn from listening to others. Vice versa, being willfully ignorant is anyone’s greatest weakness.

 

8) Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly. -Albert Einstein

 

9) He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying. -Friedrich Nietzsche

 

10) Without music, life would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche

I am sitting here at my desk considering and reflecting about what I should tell my younger self.

 

It is a big responsibility.

 

If I influence myself to actively pursue or avoid something, then I could change who I am now.

 

Every trigger action has a resulting consequence, good or bad. Cause and effect.

 

So rather than advise myself, I choose to simply reassure myself.

 

I would appear to myself as a ragged old man with a swirling cloak, a long staff, and a wispy grey beard. Someone familiar, wise, ancient, 8-bit.

I would exclaim to my former self in a booming voice, "You have accomplished so much. There is much more to come. The moments are everything. Enjoy them! Don't worry, you are going to be okay. Take more holidays!"

 

I would keep it positive. I wouldn't want to be rich. I wouldn't want to be poor. I wouldn’t want to change things, no matter how bad or good they get. I don't believe in fate or destiny; I believe that we are all creatures of endless possibility.

 

As a boy, I enjoyed reading about magical faraway trees and friends who journeyed to imaginary lands to fight against evil. I read as much as I could all about the myths and legends of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Norse gods, and the ancient Green Man who still resides in gardens all over the U.K. I loved the adventures of Sun-Wukong the Monkey King on his Journey to the West, his powerful staff made from a mountain, his chaotic vagabond spirit. I read about nature, wildlife, and the delicate ecosystem we share on this planet.

 

I attended university and studied for a Bachelor of Science in computer communications at Northampton University. I was not particularly clever or studious, but I was determined, and I didn't give up.

 

I learned about neural networks, spectral equations, X25, all the theoretical stuff we rely on every day.

 

I postulated about the multiverse, secret societies, and the Big Bang.

 

I learned first-hand about mind control and subsequently about fear and the dangers of quackery and woo. The internet helped me find like-minded individuals who supported each other. I explored our capacity to survive and to move on and that there is no instruction manual for life.

 

I was inspired by Carl Sagan and his Pale Blue Dot.

 

An opportunity to travel presented itself and I took it. I wholeheartedly recommend this to everyone. Go get your bags packed, leave your desk behind, and have adventures.

 

I saw the beautiful golden skink lizard who ran over my feet in Australia. I swam around the Maldives and saw the damage we are doing to our beautiful world. I sat amongst the flax in New Zealand watching for yellow-eyed penguins. I swam with the fishes off the edge of a huge reef searching for black pearls in the Cook Islands. I met a flying German botanist named Wolfgang from Leipzig who taught me to go slow and appreciate my surroundings. I was audited for Thetans on Hollywood Boulevard. I discovered music, my singing bowl, guitars, ukuleles, and an old tape of the Bee Gees that kept me going while driving with a boating injury in New Zealand.

 

I helped out at an international cheerleading competition, learned how to tumble like a clown, and still avoided learning to dance. I found my place on the front line of a political protest. I met a Nazi nun and an ex-Metropolitan police chief who I upset because he was prejudice and I told him so. I am the only person I know who has crashed an electric car halfway up a lamp post. It was icy.

 

My trade was learned in data centres, garages, workshops, back offices under stairs in data cabs, with interesting people who all have amazing stories. I've seen technology change. I'm amazed where we are now and I can't wait to see where we are going.

 

I have been lucky enough to be able to afford my own home, lucky enough to find a wife, lucky enough to have a child, lucky enough to have supportive family and friends, lucky enough to have a lot of animal friends. I also discovered I preferred being vegetarian, most of the time.

 

I lost my father recently to dementia. A horrible experience. If you know anyone who has it, hug them. It’s too late to learn things from him now.

 

In 2013, I formed a limited U.K. company based around SolarWinds monitoring technology. SolarWinds made my work interesting again and gave me purpose. SolarWinds gave me the tools and access to knowledge I needed to help others.

It became possible for me to walk into a room and know things.

 

I know things all the time now and so do you.

 

So after all this, would I traverse space and time to give myself advice?

 

No.

 

I've seen the movies, the paradoxes, the risks, that a butterfly effect or a sliding door could disrupt time and space messing things up and I wouldn't be me and you might not be you.

 

If I was to go now, into the unknown.

 

I would go with a smile, knowing that I have lived.

 

Laugh with me and have a wonderful Xmas!

Today, my friends, is December the 24th.

 

In Germany, this would be the evening where young kids start a raid at the Christmas tree, and grown-ups invite their parents for dinner. Or, in case of no kids available, you make sure your friends with paws are having a good time with fresh tuna:

So, everyone is busy, and no one is reading this blog post!

 

But wait, surely some IT folks are working and minding those pesky servers because servers don’t know it’s Christmas!


And for some reason, I now have this
song from the 80s in mind, but that’s fine as the task is to write about "what would I tell my younger self."

 

The lack of a time machine aside, let’s do it!

 

Twenty-something years ago, I wanted to become an architect, but, while looking into what I would need to study, I decided it's too much mathematics, which would require too much effort, so I ditched the idea early.

 

Instead, I told myself, "Okay, I am interested in art and computers," and started studying applied IT in computer media, hoping I could get away with this lazy approach and express myself through photography, video, and web design.

 

I guess you know what happened: math did strike back at the traditional IT topics and has followed me ever since. That includes random occasions, like exams asking for calculating variable subnet masks, ahhhhhh!

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and try new things!

 

Now for the next thing, food.

 

If you’re following me on Twitter, you probably wouldn’t believe that, up until 2016, I primarily ate fast food.

 

Seriously, a long time ago I spent two years in Paris without learning much of the language besides “un menu Big Mac avec frites et coca,” and at home, I just used the microwave.


The only appliances in my kitchen were the microwave and a small fridge!

 

A little later, after I arrived in Ireland, I learned how to prepare precooked food. I learned to fry beef mince, added cream and a spice mix from a bag, and felt like a master chef.

 

Hey, it was at least an improvement!

 

It took me a few more years to start with serious cooking, which opened a new world to me.

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and learn to cook earlier.

 

There is one more thing which just came into my mind.

 

For the majority of my life, I was living in a small city in Germany, and I never wanted to move elsewhere. Not even 60 kilometers south for a job—so I commuted each day instead, which turned out to be a nightmare.

 

In 2005, I had the chance to turn my hobby into my profession, and I moved to the big city, Paris, France, far away from home. The time I spent there was so-so, but I felt encouraged to relocate even farther away to Ireland a little later. An island, would you believe, and they drive on the wrong side of the road!

 

But so many things have happened. As I have lived in three different countries, I became much more open-minded and changed my views of the world, the people, and life in general. I am born German, but now consider myself European.

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and explore the world.

 

Now let me introduce you to another nice German Christmas tradition, Glühwein (heated mulled wine with the addition of a sweet spirit like Amaretto). You would start drinking these at Christmas markets in late November:

Happy Christmas.

When I first read about the writing challenge topic, my mind flicked over several different moments in my past. At what point would the advice offered be the most practical? (Or most interesting for a post!) When I was in primary (elementary) school? High school? University? Various points of my career?

 

One moment stuck out the most.

 

This was way back in primary school (grade 5). There were two grade 5 classes, and the teachers had swapped classes for the week to change things up. The second teacher was giving us some math work to do in class and spent some time going over it.

 

I was an eager student striving to please, so I finished the work quickly and put my hand up to say I was done, expecting something else to do. The teacher snapped at me, "What do you want? A goddamn brownie?!"

 

Inside my child mind I thought, "Hell yeah, I want a brownie!" But it was also a shock and it gave me some pause. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Afterwards, I would often think back to that moment and subsequent work would only involve "just enough." I would lose the strive to seek out more, to push myself.

 

Therefore, I would tell my younger self, "It is OK to push yourself; it is OK to want to learn more! Never let anyone else tell you to stop trying to improve yourself."

 

Many years later I overcame that hurdle, but sometimes I wonder how much damage was done from that moment. My brother is a teacher, and I've had discussions with him about that time. He remembers this teacher and has commented that with what they know about teaching now, her style of teaching was detrimental to students. From firsthand experience, I can't disagree.

 

I still had to push myself to put my hand up for this task though!

As an aged, wise 25-year-old, I’ve acquired such a wide breadth of knowledge, it’s hard to narrow down what I’d tell my younger self to just one, or even two, things (hopefully my sarcasm is noted). So here are some of the things that keep me moving through my 20s, that I wish my younger self might have had some foresight into. (Also, I hear your 30s are supposed to be better. If someone can confirm that, it’d be a big relief for current me).

 

Starting off with some of the lighter points:

 

Brace yourself, but you’ll be living in Texas and it will be of your own free will.

Luckily, there will be this magical land called Austin, where your political beliefs will be reassured, there will be plenty of dogs to pet and it will be generally acceptable to do so, and melted cheese will be a part of your daily diet. (Side note: you’re not lactose intolerant, but you’re getting there, so EAT ALL THE CHEESE WHILE YOU STILL CAN.)

 

Consider finding an employer who will allow you to deposit a portion of your paycheck directly to Target.

Whether you’re feeling sad, happy, or just purely existing, Target will be your Mecca; it’ll be the place that grounds you. Just know that whenever you step into the red and white fortress, you’re most likely going to walk out with at least one new top and at least a hundred dollars lighter.

 

You’ll still be watching Bravo.

Don’t worry, Bravo is still a channel and Andy Cohen is still the emperor of mindless, yet highly-scripted, reality TV. However, your favorite Real Housewives city will change multiple times, depending on where you are in life. You’ll go through a brief period where Orange County is your favorite city, but don’t be too hard on yourself—we all have low points.

 

Now the meat and potatoes of what I’d tell lil’ me:

 

There will always be things that are hard, but your ability to deal with them will get better.

I’d like to say that life gets easier, but sadly, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it will get even more challenging. You’ll feel things you’ve never felt before, both good and bad. You’ll still have panic attacks (womp-womp), but you’ll no longer start physically running from them. You’ll be able to sit and face them.

 

Just know that with each thing you go through and recover from, it’ll make that next hurdle a little bit easier to jump over. You also won’t have to do things alone, and don’t feel like you have to. Some of the friends you have now will still be there to help support you through the highs and lows, and you’ll have even more pretty amazing people join your corner along the way.

 

Follow the writing, wherever it takes you.

Worried what you’ll do with that degree in English Language Literature? You should be. Luckily, as your Dad keeps telling you, everyone needs people who can write. Your career in writing might not look like you imagined (being a writer for Rolling Stone hasn’t quite happened yet, but honestly, that’s probably for the best), but the variety will be fun. You know how you know virtually nothing about computers, other than using AIM? Well, you’ll end up working for a tech company! The exposure to the new and unfamiliar is a great thing, trust me.

 

Things happen for a reason.

You’re going to go through some things and wonder why in the world it’s happening to you. Wonder why you moved to Texas by yourself? Well, there’s going to be a lot of things building up to it, so be grateful for each one that comes along. It might take some time, but eventually you’ll look back on those things and realize they’re what helped you get to where you are—and I’m pretty sure you’re going to like where you end up.

Hi, Tom the Younger. It’s me, Tom the Elder. I’m writing you this note because there’s something you should know.

 

You’re a jerk.

 

Now, it’s not your fault you’re a jerk. But it is your problem. And the sooner you recognize you have this problem, the better.

 

I could write pages of examples to demonstrate how you have been a jerk. Doing so won’t solve the issue. Instead, I’m going to give you one piece of advice to help you stop being such a jerk.

 

There is one skill, above all others, most critical for success in any career. Once you learn this skill, you will stop being a jerk. Well, OK, maybe “stop” is a strong word. Let’s just say this skill will slow your roll a bit. You’ll be seen as a jerk less often.

 

This skill will open up new possibilities for you. It will remove roadblocks. It will make for better communication between you and your coworkers. Your family will benefit, too.

 

It’s a skill easy to learn, too. In fact, you’ve done it yourself at times. You just don’t do enough of it. But you have the power to change, starting now.

 

Empathy.

 

I want you to develop your sense of empathy for others.

 

No, I'm not talking about Commander Deanna Troi. She was empathic; there is a difference. I'm asking for you to develop empathy for the people in your life.

 

The best way to develop empathy is to talk to people. It’s easy to do! Heck, you’ve been interacting with other humans most of your life, as a teacher, a coach, a cook, and even a restaurant host.

 

And even now, as a junior software analyst, you’re interacting with people in a technical field. You will find that it doesn’t matter what the industry, people are the same everywhere. Talk to them. Find out their priorities, their concerns, their motivations.

 

When you develop a sense of empathy, you will find the nature of your conversations change for the better. Empathy is going to be the key for you to manage your relationships better. Because the corporate world is all about relationships.

 

Oh, one more thing. The world of tech is small. The people you work with now will cross your path again at some point. And they will remember how you made them feel.

 

So, learn some empathy, you jerk.

 

Before it’s too late for us.

 

#datahug

 

Tom the Elder

Dear Younger Self,

 

It was difficult for me to decide which piece of wisdom I should give you. Not because I am so much wiser than you. In fact, it’s the opposite. Though I have had more time to learn, it turns out I am a slow learner. I continue to make the same mistakes and learn the same lessons. I am no wiser than you, I’ve just lived longer and am finally starting to notice the patterns in my life.

 

You’re likely thinking, “Wait, are you telling me I’m never going to learn? I thought this letter was going to make me feel LESS scared!” Which brings me to my chosen piece of advice for you, my younger self: Don’t let fear stop you. Yes, I am telling you you’re always going to be scared. Unfortunately, fear never seems to leave our side.

 

I know fear can feel paralyzing. It stops us from making decisions. It makes us shut down. But there have been times when we have put that fear aside, and taken a leap of faith. Remember when we were too scared to go on rollercoasters at theme parks? Dad and Caroline would go, while we stayed behind with Mom to ride the “easier” rides. One day, we put that fear aside and bravely ventured onto one of the “scary” rides. It was exhilarating. We rode it again and again and couldn’t imagine a time before we dared to ride that ride.

 

Remember in high school when we decided to audition for a musical, having never sang in front of an audience before? We weren’t sure we could do it. We blacked out and don’t even remember the audition. But we did it! And musical theater became an important part of our life for years after that. We couldn’t remember a time before musicals.

 

I’m reminding you of these times to show that, even though some days it feels like fear is ruling your life, you can, and you have, overcome it. You don’t have to let fear stop you from trying new things, from taking risks, from doing something you want to do and not worrying about the outcome. Some of the happiest moments in our life, the times we’ve felt most free, have come from taking a leap of faith and overcoming fear. Let’s do more of that!

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret, younger self: this letter is just as much advice for you at your age, as it is for me at this age. I’m still figuring everything out one day at a time, but from now on I am going to strive to not let fear stop me. Together, we can build a more fun, more rewarding life for ourselves.

 

Ready, set, go!

Accepting a compliment seems like a small thing in the context of the many, many things I could have done better if I knew more when I was younger, but I’m a big believer of small changes reaping big rewards. It’s also a topic that’s front of mind for me as I work on modeling constructive behavior to my daughter, who pays closer attention to what I do than what I say.

 

I know this isn’t only a female issue, but I’m going to speak to it with that lens as it’s what I know. Society has a way of sending not just mixed, but unhelpful messages to girls. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Properly accepting a compliment is one example. Women constantly get the message that we must always be modest, and accepting a compliment makes us appear arrogant or cocky. So instead, we:

 

•             Deny: “I wish that were true” or the equivalent of “This old thing?” to a comment on your outfit.   

•             Downplay: “I didn’t do that well. (Goes into list of things I could have done better).”

•             Deflect: “Actually, (insert name) is much better at (whatever) than me.”

 

But why does agreeing with someone make you cocky? I’d like to tell my former self that by giving in to those ridiculous reflexes, I was not only refusing the praise, I was negating it altogether. With my awkward attempts to be humble, I was broadcasting a message that I was timid and lacked confidence, and that the person trying to give the compliment was just plain wrong. This reflex probably topped off at irritating in my personal life, but absolutely hurt me in the workplace. “Former self,” I would say, “Knock it off. Here comes some advice.”

 

•             Just say thank you! It’s simple, appropriate, and easy to do, even when tongue-tied.

•             If you want to say more, focus on things such as acknowledging the work behind the achievement. But be careful not to hand the whole thing back or to someone else.       

•             Share the compliment. Almost any accomplishment is in some way a team effort. Making sure those that had a part share in your success is a fantastic way to strengthen relationships.

 

I’m not done with my former self yet. Former self, you also need to check your body language, as it can contradict your words. I’ve worked in male-dominated fields for many years. I’ve had hundreds of wonderful co-workers. But unfortunately, I’ve been in handful of awful situations that made me want to make myself small and unnoticed. Younger Kathleen, don’t let the exception, the few, steal your opportunity to shine. Stand up straighter, uncross those arms, make eye contact, and assume those kudos are deserved and the intentions behind them are pure.

 

Graciously accepting a compliment is an easy way to demonstrate self-assurance, and, as a woman I admire once told me, to own your success. I’ve worked hard throughout my career, and I’m good at what I do. When people notice and offer praise, it’s deserved. Acknowledging that does not make me a narcissist. It shows I can appreciate a win and sends the message that I’m capable of more.

 

While I can’t really go back and influence Kathleen of the past, I can focus on doing this right today and going forward. Hopefully, my daughter—who is the closest I’ll get to my younger self—will notice and grow up feeling comfortable receiving the praise I know she will deserve. To me, that would be even better than a time machine.

Discussing anything on THWACK even tangentially related to time-travel is tricky, because there are many members with both strong opinions on temporal mechanics, and passion to defend them. Add in the loose confederation of Back to the Future timeline wonks, and things get really interesting. But throwing caution to the wind, both for comments and unintended butterfly effects, I’ll state for the record I would go back in time and pay a visit to my younger self. I’d step into a portal and go back to sophomore high school me with one simple bit of advice: don’t get stuck in the friend zone.

 

I’m assuming I’m not the only now-grownup technologist who back in the day hung out with co-ed peers, was regularly introduced to their friends, and got invited to a decent number of parties. But while I was generally conforming near the safe-middle of the normative social curve, I also encountered a disproportionate tendency to end up a cherished and irreplaceable platonic best friend. Apparently speaking the way I wrote the previous sentence did not automatically stir romance, and further steered budding relationships into the friend zone. Also not helpful? The express route to what’s now known as ghosting, the parental kiss of death: “He’s so nice, when will you two go out again?” After a couple of years, that became pretty confusing and disappointing. How could offering me—my best, open, and excited by the world of ideas me—not magically result in hearts, flowers, and unicorns?

 

Open the Time-Portal

 

If I could go back, I’d offer specific advice which has turned out to be also surprisingly valuable in a technology career.

 

“Hey me,” I’d say to myself.

 

“OMG dude, will I really become that that old?! Ugh,” I’d reply to myself, genuinely curious.

 

“Hopefully you’re going to get a lot older than this… but listen. I’m here to get you out of the friend zone.”

 

“You mean get US out of the friend zone. Your motives here, though technically external, are actually selfish,” he’d sarcastically reply.

 

“First,” I began, “you need to back off the dictionary, professor. Adults eat that up, but it makes you look like a dork.” Young me would grimace while conceding that point, and I’d continue, “And second, when you get friendzoned…”

 

If I get friendzoned,” he’d interrupt.

 

“Sure. On those incredibly rare occasions you might get friendzoned… you must be honest that you really want to date your friend, or the inevitable dissatisfaction is on you.”

 

“But she says I’m her very best friend, that I’m like her brother and she can’t afford to lose me. She said that might happen if we go on a date-date,” he’d admit, with big, earnest, say-it-ain’t-so eyes.

 

“Yeah, that’s the thing. She’s saying that because she does mean it. She really, really likes you, but what you don’t know yet is she likes you so much that if offered a choice between certainly losing you now as a friend because the relationship is unequal, or taking a risk and perhaps building something more… she’ll likely take the risk. And yes, they’ll be some nervous and sad moments, but in general, that gnawing feeling of unfairness, of inequity considering your interest and effort will go away,” I’d conclude. At that point, young me would need a pocket knife, LEGO motor, LEDs, or some other tactile distraction to run some analytic CPU cycles and burn down the work queue. It would have been a lot to hear, especially from a gray-haired version of your future self.

 

“I’ll take it under advisement,” he’d finally say after a long sigh. “And, you should get on the SPF, so we don’t get wrinkled.”

 

“Is that how timelines work?” I’d ask over my shoulder, turning to step back into the portal.

 

“Ugh, that’s on me too??”

 

“Yep, but if you must choose only one, don’t get stuck in unequal relationships. You can do better than the friend zone,” I’d reply, and disappear into a puff of un-smoke.

 

Returning to This Timeline

 

Thinking of this logic exercise now, perhaps I’m projecting current career advice back into my adolescence. Because while the friend zone seems to be a frequent hazard as geeks come of age, it’s relatively harmless compared with its adult analog: the dutiful admin stuck in IT. The job friend zone is real, with serious side effects like a seven-digit lifetime income deficit, stress related illnesses, and worse, enormous missed opportunity cost.

 

So how does that happen to grown-up, otherwise logical humans? Despite the warm fuzzies paranoia and conspiracy theory brings to social media, businesses are not actually out to get you. Bosses don’t wake up thinking of new ways to torture us. We are not in the Good Place. But even though good management is (usually) trying to find work-life balance, or at least intends to when there’s time, how often do we find ourselves being offered the job friend zone?

 

Instead, IT might be one of the last careers that remember pensions. Maybe if we just work hard enough, if we’re loyal enough, if we can just hold out... everything will naturally work out. Management will notice we haven’t seen a real raise in five years, training budget will magically be released, or we’ll go on vacation and not get a call about the network. And it may well be that the job friend zone is our own creation—an unfortunate byproduct of striving to be good and believing that everyone else will too. Fortunately, realizing you’re in the job friend zone isn’t too difficult.

 

How many times have you heard one of these?

 

  • “You’re the strongest member of our team, but we can’t promote you now because you’re too valuable in your current role.”
  • “Love your enthusiasm – so many great ideas! We don’t have budget for that, but let’s see at the end of the year.”
  • “I hear you, but how’s your team development coming along? You need to demonstrate great management skills to take on that technical role.”

 

Ugh.

 

My advice for admins in that situation now is the same as it would have been to me as a high school sophomore:

 

“I know you like me, and don’t want to lose me. But if you don’t help me follow my interest to be the best I can be, then I’m walking out the door, and you’ll lose me for sure.” But don’t take my word for it—ask around. Especially in this job market, you’ll find lots of tech pros who broke through their managers’ reluctance to get back to delivering their best work, having the greatest impact on the businesses, and often getting seriously better comp.

 

We’re drawn to IT because we honestly want to please, to fix the unfixable, to keep the lights on no matter what, to know we’re heroic while eschewing accolades. It’s a calling. And it’s easy for management to mistake our significant flexibility and patience for submission or at least advantageous resignation. So sometimes we have to sit ourselves down to receive difficult advice: “Same age me, don’t get stuck in the job friend zone.”

If I were to choose one thing to tell my younger IT professional self, it would be “know your business.” That could mean many things, but what I’m talking about is make sure you have a solid understanding of the following:

 

  • Expectations – make sure that what you are doing is what is wanted/expected
  • Your role – in your team, your organization, and your company
  • Your value – what you bring to the table that others appreciate
  • The numbers – any numbers about you, your role, your job, and what you deliver that others look at or that guide business decisions
  • Measurements – related to numbers; what gets measured gets done, so know the key performance indicators
  • Money – how it effects your position, your team, your organization, how budgets are decided, and what gets tracked

 

I have worked with too many people in my careers that have flawed thinking. A lot of it stems from not knowing the business of what they do. They could be subject matter experts at X, but still not be successful. Knowing your business helps you to see the “big picture” in a light that will help you understand what decisions are being made, why they are being made, and what decisions are likely to be made in the future when Y happens. Many IT professionals complain that management just doesn’t get it; however, perhaps a more useful approach is to ask how management is looking at things.

Growing up, like most children, I did not have the perspective to fully comprehend my environment. My father owned a stake in the family companies started by his father. The South Texas companies included construction, cranes, and lumber businesses that started in 1927.

 

Having a 4,000-acre company hunting lease in Frio County to go to every winter, or, if you were broken down on the road, a company tractor-trailer rig that would arrive to pick up both you and your car and take you to the company’s mechanics shop – this was just part of my childhood environment.

 

This made me a lazy person in some ways, but in others, I picked up on the family work ethic. When I was 14, I worked in the summer as a laborer. For $1.50 an hour, I had a number of jobs. Some I remember well, like moving multiple bundles of lumber out of the weather by hand, picking up trash, and sweeping the floor. The floor was 20,000 square feet and the trash filled three thirty-foot dump bed trucks. The truck driver Jesse taught me how to use the PTO and dump the load. It was a lot more fun and easier to unload the trash than to fill it up.

 

My work effort reading and writing in middle and high school is a good example of the bad kind of lazy. Almost all my reading was technical books. I could write process documentation, but hardly anything else. I was in my early 20s when I started reading novels for fun. After that, my writing improved.

 

So, if I could go back and speak to my younger self, it would be to say, “Read and write for fun when you’re young and never stop!”

 

Paul Guido

 

P.S. My grandfather was in his early teens when he and his father immigrated from Southern Italy, coming through Galveston to work in the vast open copper mines in southeastern Arizona. The mines at the time were worked primarily by Mexicans and Italians.  here he met my grandmother and started a family. In 1920, he moved the family to San Antonio.

 

When starting his own business, my grandfather needed to have accounting skills, so he sent off for a correspondence course from Chicago. He would do his homework and send it off by mail, and two or three weeks later he would receive a letter with his grade and the next assignment.

 

How times have changed.

Growing up in the Great State of Texas where every “old-timer” offers a wealth of knowledge, and then being blessed in my “adult” years to travel both the world and country extensively, I’ve collected a ridiculous amount of quotes/euphemisms/sayings/proverbs/what-have-you. While many can seem trite, and there are various opinions about their efficacy in teaching or inspiring [1][2], I do feel their pull and try to find meaning in the ones that catch my eye. With that in mind, in no particular order, I submit to you a small(ish) selection of things I wish I had known and appreciated at the tender age of “younger.” I’ve tried to provide sources where available, but I very well may have missed some. As a result, I do not claim ownership of any of these.

 

  • Your employment does not define your life. However, you will spend a significant amount of time at your job. Find one you’ll be excited about.
    • This is something that I’ve learned through failure. I’ve had several points in my career where I have been in a toxic culture or simply felt unfulfilled in my job. That negativity resonates throughout your entire life and should be addressed as much as possible. Easier said than done, but nonetheless important.
  • If someone is trying to convince you that they aren’t a positive influence in your life, let them.
    • Similar to the above. I like to give everyone the benefit of doubt, but we all need to learn at some point that it’s not up to us to change others. (And sometimes, to attempt to do so would be highly selfish; we’re not always right either.)
  • A falling knife has no handle.
    • Practical, but in my mind, the deeper meaning is that some things need to be allowed to fall.
  • Slow down and watch.
    • I tend to work at breakneck speed in many aspects of my life. One of my hardest challenges, and biggest personal weaknesses, is getting lost in a goal and missing everything around me during pursuit.
  • Work ethic and situational awareness are priceless, but empathy is free.
    • A reminder that efficiency should not replace compassion.
  • Never compete with anyone as hard as you compete with yourself.
    • Personally, I am highly competitive. I’ve learned that I am a much nicer and less judgmental person by keeping that competitive spirit to myself.
  • “Get mad, then get over it.” – Secretary Colin Powell
    • Passion breeds some amazing things. Anger can be an extremely constructive emotion. But brooding has never in my life provided anything positive.
  • It doesn’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.
  • Test in Prod.
    • I live by this mantra when I’m developing tools and automation. If you aren’t testing your work in the real world, then you are not testing anything.
  • “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” – Secretary James Mattis
    • I was fortunate enough to work under General James “Mad Dog” Mattis’ command in the 1st Marine Division. Commonly referred to as the “Warrior Monk,” he has achieved a somewhat fanatical following for his attitude, theories, and leadership style. Of all the things he’s said, one of the most influential was this. Contextually, he’s admonishing the focus that existed in many commands that plans need to be packaged in pretty slide decks. Instead, we should be focusing on proper execution of those plans.
  • Strive to be lazy.
    • Lazy admins are the best admins. If you don’t plan to automate your job, someone else will. (I think that just added a quote inside of a quote. #quoteception)
  • Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.
    • Be aware that all your efforts may mean nothing to the end result, which is OK.
  • The easiest way to eat crow is while it’s still warm. The colder it gets, the harder it is to swallow.
    • Own up to your mistakes quickly. There’s a whole internet full of quotes about this concept, and they’re all accurate. The longer you wait to own an issue, the worse it gets in all manner of ways.
  • Sometimes you get and sometimes you get got.
    • You’re going to fail. Learn to embrace it and use the experiences effectively.
  • Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.
    • Similar to the above. Don’t be too hard on yourself when a mistake is made. But learn to not repeat your mistakes.
  • You can’t tell how good a man or a watermelon is 'till they get thumped.
    • I have a strong opinion (among hundreds of others I suppose) that convictions are meant to be tested. Some of the most memorable lessons in my life came at the end of trials and tribulations. Being able to maintain your sense of self during the hard times says a lot more about you as a person than anything else.
  • If you get to thinkin' you’re a person of some influence, try orderin' somebody else’s dog around.
    • This is one of my favorite quotes from my great-grandfather. I’ve seen it around on the internet, so either he’s SUPER famous or he heard it from someone else. Either way, it’s a good reminder to keep your ego in check.
  • If you’re ridin' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there with you. 
    • Being a leader in many ways can be a rewarding and sometimes lonely experience. Make sure that your support system and team are still with you.
  • Never miss a good chance to shush up.
    • Another one of my personal weaknesses.
  • A cat can have kittens in an oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.
    • Titles don’t mean much. Let’s respect action.
  • An empty wagon makes a lot of noise.
    • You’ll find people who are loud, maybe even yourself at times, can be bereft of tangibles.
  • Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat
    • Fortune Favors the Brave/Bold. From personal to professional life, this seems to hold true. Risk has rewards, if you’re willing to accept them.
  • Understand the importance of compound interest.
    • Seriously. [3]
  • “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
    • No one is going to convince you of your own thoughts. We limit ourselves more than we care to admit.
  • “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” – Erin Majors
    • I stumbled upon this one recently. It struck a chord with me for sure. Maybe it’s the holiday season, or maybe I just needed the reminder.
  • Treat the janitor like the Queen of England.
    • This is one of my top 10 all time. We, all of us, never know the full breadth of someone else’s experiences. Let’s try to treat each other with dignity and respect. It doesn’t cost a thing.
  • “Respect other’s choices.” – Leon Adato
    • This is my newest addition. Leon had this in his Day 1 post [4] and it resonated with me. The full context of the lesson is: “By definition, the people nearest you are the most important. They are the ones who chose to show up, to stay, to be in your company. Give that choice the respect it deserves.”
  • You can’t put the pin back in the grenade.
    • I think we all have said something to someone, be it loved one or stranger, that we wish we could take back. Some of my biggest regrets are surrounded by my words.
  • Leaders eat last.
    • A basic tenant of any and all leadership courses from the Marines. Even in boot camp, this practice is drilled into recruits who effectively oversee nothing. The premise is the belief that leadership is a burden, not a right. Leaders exist because of the people they lead, and for no other reason. You’re not a leader because you’ve earned it by who you are, or even what you’ve done. You earn the privilege in your continual actions, and the privilege can and oftentimes should be taken away if your choices do not benefit the mission or the people. Simon Sinek has a pretty good book [5] on the subject, and I believe there’s some abridged versions he’s thrown on YouTube as well if you’re interested.

 

What I personally attempt is to try and be mindful of my actions and how they play out in the world surrounding me. Particularly as they interact with the experiences of others. I’m not always successful, and many mistakes have been made, and will be made in the future. But I think intent matters.

 

I’m curious, do any of these feel meaningful to your own life/experiences? Also, do you have any items that I can add to my collection? I’m always looking to learn new things. As the artist Michelangelo said (or maybe he didn’t?), “I’m still learning.”

 

[1] https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/248585
[2] https://www.fastcompany.com/3051432/why-inspirational-quotes-motivate-us
[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/27/nerdwallet-charts-show-the-power-of-compound-interest.html
[4] https://thwack.solarwinds.com/community/solarwinds-community/contests-missions/december-writing-challenge-2018/blog/2018/11/30/day-1-slow-down-you-crazy-child
[5] https://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Eat-Last-Together-Others/dp/1543614620

What’s funny is, in writing this now, I’m on my fourth rewrite. Each time this ends up being several paragraphs too long, going on several tangents Family Guy-style and missing my own point. But if there was something I’d want to tell my younger self, it’s to take to heart a quote that I heard when I was younger. If you haven’t figured out by my handle, I’m a fan of anime, and one show that has stuck with me for the longest time is Neon Genesis Evangelion. In one episode, a new lead character is introduced and moves into the small apartment of the others, and like other stereotypical brash characters, she’s complaining, particularly of the thin Japanese-style sliding doors. The host of the apartment pops in to state, “The Japanese way is to consider the priorities and needs of others before one’s own,” meaning that the openness of the room is way to connect with everyone else. Spoiler, but in the end, it’s when she starts thinking about others that things ultimately start turning to the better for her, ultimately sacrificing her life for others.

So, to make this short and sweet, take care of others first. Everyone says karma is a…well…negative thing, but it can also be good. Making sure that your friends and family are taken care of and that they have what they need should come before yourself. In the end, when you are the one that needs the help, well…good karma will have a way of coming back to you. And never EVER keep track of favors you’ve done for others. “The only time you should be looking at your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.”

When I looked at my calendar five years ago, every weekend was booked, occasionally double-booked, three months out – at minimum.

 

As the kids would say, I am “hashtag blessed” to have a group of girlfriends with whom I’ve grown up with and despite new jobs, new cities, and new adventures, we’ve remained extremely close. With friendships spanning more than a decade, these ladies are my best friends, travel buddies, confidants, second opinions, gut-checks, and sounding boards for the day-to-day. So of course, I want to celebrate every occasion with and beside them.

 

So what happens when your friend group of 10+ very successful, inspiring women start hitting those big life milestones? Your free time, disposable income, and patience dwindle. Life becomes a cycle of happy hours to celebrate promotions, engagement cocktails, bachelorette parties, destination weddings, birthday blowouts, and don’t forget the endless thread of back-and-forth emails to monopolize your time nail down details.

 

The streamers and confetti morph into glitter-encrusted resentment and exasperation. While you’re scouring your closet for yet another costume party ensemble and realizing you don’t have the right components for a “Music Videos from the 90s” theme, you check your bank account to realize that not only is your free time depleted, but you’re one Target charge away from an overdraft fee. But hey! You’ve got a great Instagram feed full of friendship and celebration.

 

Yes, spending quality time with your friends is one of the most rewarding pastimes and yes, those moments are invaluable, and I recognize that as we continue to grow up and priorities shift, we’ll look back on these occasions with a bittersweet nostalgia. That kind of rose-colored perspective that comes when you’ve settled into new routines that now revolve around soccer schedules and team meetings, instead of the #finalflingbeforethering.

 

Was the stress of feeling obligated and burdened by someone else’s joy—followed immediately by guilt for even feeling remotely resentful toward your favorite people—worth it? Maybe most of the time. But time is your most precious, non-renewable resource and something you should treat as such.

 

I’ve learned that while I may miss an inside joke here and there, and I might not be tagged in every photo to hit social media, I’m a much better friend (and human) when I am not over-extended and saying yes to every invitation. Because you can’t show up when it really matters if you’ve exhausted all your energy. You can’t provide the support we all need at some point when you’re sleep deprived and living latte to latte.

 

While FOMO can momentarily sting, embracing the JOMO is paramount to maintaining your sanity, financial stability, and, most importantly, your friendships.

  1. Finances:
    1. Set aside even more money, earlier on, so you can retire earlier. You’ll be financially safe, even if Social Security isn’t secure when we hit retirement age. We didn’t sacrifice comfort, but we might have been able to retire earlier if we’d done without a few luxuries and put aside an extra $25/week in our twenties.
    2. Get a second job and use it to fund that earlier retirement and affording the musical and photographic toys you enjoy so much. Performing music or taking and selling photographs isn’t a bad idea.
    3. The stock market will crash or slump several times. Stay out of it in 1980-82, 1990-91, 2001, and 2007.
    4. Get out of the rat race by living someplace where you’re in the deep woods. By living in an area so nice that people want to visit that part of the world on vacation. Don’t live somewhere that comes with stress, bad drivers, crime, and neighbors with whom I feel you must compete.  For me it was “Head North, Young Man!”
    5. Loans: 
      1. Never buy a new automobile—the depreciation makes it a bad investment. Buy one that’s two years old, with mileage between 20,000 and 30,000. Buy less than you want, and only what you need, and be done with a car or toy loan in two years or less.
      2. Pay extra and have your home paid for in fifteen years—it works. Don’t question it—just do it. Then put the extra money, after things are paid off, towards retirement and travel.
    6. Stock Market:
      1. Buy deeply into Apple Computer stock in 2000. Sell them in 2017. One dollar will get you $220.
      2. Buy IBM in 1991. Sell in 2010. One dollar gets you $180.
      3. Buy Microsoft in 1989. Sell in 2018. One dollar gets you $120.
  2. Laws:
    1. ALWAYS obey the speed limit. Doing so saves you loads of problems. And probably an accident or two in rural Minnesota or at a McDonald’s restaurant.
    2. Integrity and honesty will serve you well. Never make an exception to this. You’ll always keep your integrity intact and people will have no reason to disrespect you. It’s a nice feeling!
    3. Don’t get into the front passenger seat of any vans without seat-belts and you won’t lose your eyebrows (and you won’t get to enjoy having them sewn back on in the E.R.) after you fly face-first through a windshield in 1975. Novocain needles into the eyeballs—that’s something to avoid by wearing seat belts. Stick with the front passenger van seat-belt advice in 1983 and ‘84, and you won’t have to worry about late-night ice-road accidents. Make it simple and ALWAYS wear a seat belt—or don’t ride in that vehicle.
  3. Find an exercise program wherever you live and be actively faithful to participation. Always!
  4. Forty years (and counting) of a successful marriage is something many people can’t claim, but you’ll be able to when you stay true to the girl you’ll meet in college.
  5. Have your children early. Have them in your twenties instead of in your thirties. They’re inevitable, because “If the Mama ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy.” So get over it. Having them when you’re younger has some important benefits (as well as a few consequences if you happen to be selfish instead of selfless). They’re worth it! Never let ‘em outnumber you! The world has plenty of people, and two kids are enough for you.
  6. Don’t trust printed or online car or truck value estimations or reviews. The companies that make them end up being owned by the same companies that make the cars, and their advice is no longer independent.
  7. Treat everyone the way you like to be treated. That includes NOT saying everything that may come to mind. A great guideline to use before saying or writing anything:

 

Is it true?

Is it helpful?

Is it inspiring/interesting?

Is it necessary?

Is it kind?

 

  If you’re saying or writing something and you can’t answer “Yes” to all the above, reconsider your actions. Don’t write or say it. Modify what you’re offering to others, so you CAN answer “yes” to all of the above.

Looking back over my life is both exciting and HORRIFYING. Let me explain. I was 18 and graduating LPN school in a little town in Oklahoma. I thought I had life by the horns, let me tell you. I was going to quickly excel and run away in a medical career and never look back. Obviously, you all know me and understand that was not my future at all. However, if you would have told me then my future involved databases, networks, servers, and security, I would have laughed my butt off.

 

How did I have such a pivotal change at 18 that literally decided the rest of my life? I hated being a nurse in the real world. Other nurses weren’t following proper procedures and regulations. I saw friends get placed in bad situations due to other nurses’ negligence. I developed a keen awareness of these things called germs and how I was literally bringing these newfound friends home every day all day to my family. Long story short, I was in a dilemma about my foreseeable future.

 

Immediately after a long shift, I enrolled online into my first A+ and CCNA class at vo-tech. The rest is history. But what lesson did I learn and what would I tell myself looking back on the life I literally had planned since I was 10 years old? Relax, because you’re not going to be in the medical field and you’re a natural learner. Hey, life will fall into place. When I made the decision to get into IT, my family was so mad at me and I was sick all the time because I was fighting my way to the top every day.

 

I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for being the only woman in a room and searching and struggling for these answers and defending every idea. But, strangely, I loved the fight and the way it made me be sharper and study stronger. So, to all my family that were against me walking away from my dream and literally allowing me to buy out Walmart of all Pepto and antacids, thank you. Because you helped me to be the independent, pain-in-the-butt, stickler-for-security woman that I proudly am today.

 

To myself, well heck, looking back, I loved every trial. Every teary-eyed moment of rejection of ideas and every win that started to outweigh the losses. In the end, I’d just tell me, “Yeah, you’ll never do that medical stuff,” and to follow my heart instead of the dream I thought I once had.

I found it quite difficult to pass on just one piece of advice when there is so much I wanted to tell my younger self; to prepare her for and to protect her from. But then I realised that if she doesn’t go through it, then we wouldn’t become the person we are today. Instead, I decided to give advice relevant to what is to come but also allows younger me the freedom to make those mistakes, take the unpaved path, and live her life as only she can! So here goes...

 

 

To my younger self,

We were always eager to get to the next stage of everything we did, so would run before we could walk…even as a baby we walked before we could crawl! But while some may herald us as a child genius for this (*ahem* our parents), in life, it brings its own challenges.

 

Because we went straight to walking, we never learned everything we needed to, like that minor yet important step of how to get from standing to sitting. So, after our adventure across the sitting room to reclaim our favourite toy from the clutches of our devious cocker spaniel, we would just stop dead in our tracks, timber like a freshly chopped tree, and face plant! We had our whole family on high alert for that precarious moment when we stopped walking so they could catch us before we fell.

 

What I wanted to share with you is that you might not always have someone there to catch you. So, in everything you do, don’t jump in head (or face) first. Take the time to learn the steps and walk before you run...or in our case, crawl before you walk!

 

 

Now over to all of you: if you had the chance to pass on advice to your younger self, knowing that if you did there was a chance it would change who you are today, would you do it?

In a 2013 interview with Smashing Magazine (https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/12/berlin-designer-interview-benjamin-dauer-npr/), NPR Senior Product Designer and Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud Benjamin Dauer said,

 

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Challenge yourself at all times, and learn from every experience — good and bad.”

 

Of all the advice that I've heard, of all the advice I could give, "Don't be afraid to fail" is the single most important lesson we can learn in every part of our lives. Accepting failure is a profoundly humbling experience, and it begins with acknowledging that we cannot know everything, nor can we always make the right choices for any given situation. Deciding that failure is an option allows each of us to accept failure in others. Instead of viewing mistakes as limitations, we can begin to recognize them as an exercise in discovery.

 

I once heard a story of a man who traveled a road toward home only to arrive at an unfamiliar fork in his path. Unsure of which direction to take, he opted for the road to the right. After a few miles of uncertainty, he arrived at a dead-end. Turning around, he drove back to the fork and took the road to the left. His son, sitting next to him, complained about the detour and the delay. The man smiled and responded, reassuring his son, "We had two paths to from which to choose. Having traveled the wrong path, we can be sure that we are on the right path now."

 

When I began my career more than 20 years ago, I saw people that seemed to always make the right choice. They knew things I didn't know. They were able to find opportunities that I could not seem to find. They embraced uncertainty with a confidence I could only dream of possessing. Here’s what I now realize: They made mistakes and made them often. They didn't know everything and often had a very limited scope of knowledge of the extremely broad field that is IT. And those opportunities? They came because they pushed themselves into unfamiliar situations.

 

How do I know? Because I walked that same path. If someone had told my 21-year-old self, who was then commuting 50 miles each way to work as a support technician for a small telecommunications company in Michigan, that I would work from home in Canada's smallest province for one of the largest companies in the world, that I would also operate a successful freelance consulting practice, and, best of all, that I would be Canada's only SolarWinds THWACK MVP, I would have told you that it was impossible. But my family and I embraced failure, and we did fail as I pursued my education and career, but we learned from our experiences.

 

To my younger self, in whichever multiverse you exist and have yet to take those first steps, don't be afraid to fail. Always be learning. Push yourself. You've got this.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my friends, colleagues, and fellow THWACKsters. May 2019 be a year of courage to accept failure for exactly what it is—a challenge to learn something new.

Dear younger me

Where do I start

If I could tell you everything that I have learned so far

Then you could be

One step ahead

Of all the painful memories still running thru my head

I wonder how much different things would be

Dear younger me

MercyMe. “Dear Younger Me.” Welcome to the New, Fair Trade/Columbia, 2014


Kevin M. Sparenberg
Edmondson Heights Elementary School
Mrs. Sarnecki’s 4th Grade Class


Dear Kevin,


First things first, this is you writing from the end of 2018.  I can’t explain how, but I’ve found a way to send back this single letter with advice on your future, hoping that you’ll find a way to live a better life.  Please take this advice to heart and try to incorporate it into who you will become—in essence, me.  Not everything will make sense right now and some of the words may be unfamiliar (I’ve put explanations in parenthesis like this for those words), but please keep this letter, think on it, and read it when needed.

 

I know that you think this letter will be a list of things to avoid, like Marty McFly did for Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future, but it’s not.  Unfortunately, if I give you too much information about your future, I could irrevocably injure the timeline.  If my calculations are correct, this letter should find you some time before installments two and three of that franchise.  Do yourself a favor and just re-watch the original twice more.  I’d say you’ll thank me later, but that would just be self-serving.

 

Even without seeing you, I can appreciate the skepticism on your face.  “If he’s not going to tell me how to avoid problems, what good is this letter?”  I understand, I really do.  There are going to be things that you cannot avoid, pivotal moments in your life, and for most of them, the pain of the event is outweighed by the experiences you gain beyond them.  There is a television show that Pop watches that I begin watching in 2005 called Doctor Who.  In the show, these events are called “fixed points in time.”  Experiences at a time and place that cannot be changed.  What I will tell you is that although these can’t be changed, you can prepare yourself for them.

 

Well before our time, there was this playwright (person who writes plays) in New York who was the talk of the town.  When asked about the most beautiful thing in the world, George Bernard Shaw is attributed as saying, “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity it has to be wasted on children!”  What I want for you, more than anything, is to not waste your childhood.

 

Later this school year, Mrs. S. will hand out an assignment asking where we will be in five, 10, and 20 years.  I still remember doing that assignment, so it’ll happen.  No, I’m not going to tell you where you’ll be – that would be cheating.  What I will tell you is that although this is a good exercise, you should slow down and not look forward so much.  Enjoy the today, today.

 

In your future there is going to be pain — pain that defies logic to the deepness and sadness it creates — and you’ll think that it will break you.  You’ll ask yourself questions that start with “What if I…?”  You’ll berate yourself with statements beginning like “If I had just…”  All I can say from this side of the fence is that those questions are good, healthy even, but don’t lose track of the good in life.  You are stronger than you think.  Just take the time to appreciate the small things in life between the big stuff.

 

Even now, I’m an introvert (person who prefers to spend time alone).  I don’t find it easy to associate with people, I’m almost always anxious in front of an audience, and I envy others who connect so easily with humanity.  For most of your life, you’ve felt like an outsider, regardless of your qualifications.  In my time, we refer to that as “impostor syndrome”— when you feel like your success isn’t deserved, regardless of your skill.

 

The best way I can tell you to combat this is to surround yourself with cheerleaders.  Now I don’t mean “yes-men” like those jocks and their buddies in high school.  You haven’t met them yet, but they are all jerks.  Worry less about what the general population thinks of you.  You’ve got a few great friends, and in your life, you’ll continue to have friends like this.  They may not be the same people in the future as they are now, but your friends will be in your corner.  They will push you to be better than you are and give you space when you need to have down time.

 

The other thing I can say is that you need to take the time to appreciate the small things in life.  This can be anything from keeping score for Mom and Dad at bowling to watching movies with Mike and Doug.  I know that your brother is frequently a pain but remember that he will always be your brother.  There are things that he can teach you about life. Just take a minute and watch the world from his perspective.

 

For that matter, watch the world from as many perspectives as you can.  Watch people, I mean really watch people, and how they interact with each other.  Stop thinking about how much of a baby your cousin Barbara is when she sings along with Cinderella.  Just look at the joy that she has dancing around the room singing along with the mice.  She’s not out there doing big things in the world yet, but she’s living every moment of life.

 

Find these moments of joy, even if they aren’t yours directly, and capture them as memories to replay in your mind later.  Treasure every hug from each relative, every sunny afternoon in the pool, and the joy in reading a good book.  Find these small things and keep the memories of them close.  Pain and trials lie ahead, because that is life, but holding onto these memories can make you heal faster and be a better person.

 

So, what’s the real message of this letter?  Simple: have fun and enjoy other people having fun.  There are going to be times where fun is sparse, so use the memories you collect to banish some of the gloom.

 

Sincerely,

 

KMSigma

 

Kevin M. Sparenberg
December 2018

 

P.S. – Remember to comment your code.  You don’t know that this means yet, but trust me, it’ll save your hours and hours of time later in life.

What I would tell my younger self:

 

Well, where to begin? If I were given the opportunity to slip an anonymous message to my younger self, a single sentence only… what would I say? When you REALLY start to think about it, and the possible impact that the otherwise innocuous collection of characters could have, it proves to be a surprisingly difficult question, dear reader!

 

We’ve all seen the stories that have touched on this, my favourite being the “Back to the Future” series. The struggles that Marty McFly went through to avoid destroying his parent’s past (and therefore himself!) while at the same time helping his father, George, get noticed by his mother (SPOILER: almost replacing him in her affections at one point!) goes some way to warn us of the dangers of such an opportunity. I will be referring to these films throughout this post, just for fun, if not for relevance!

 

For the purpose of my piece of the 2018 Writing Challenge, I have excluded all obvious avenues of fiscal gain, so no Grays Sports Almanac for me!

 

In my professional career, I have been lucky. Many things have slotted into place, at the right time, for me to arrive where I am today. While I’d like to have arrived at this position five years earlier, I’m happy where I am. I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters. In short, I couldn’t be happier, and I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

 

Despite the power for good that advice from the future could be, I would be concerned that if I were to say something to redirect my younger self’s efforts, I would risk erasing my current position, or inadvertently wish my kids out of existence! I couldn’t send anything back through the temporal telegram service that could be damaging. It’s simply too risky.

 

So, what WOULD I send back through timey-wimey snail-mail? It would be this simple phrase:

 

Jez – Always Remember – Est Sularus Oth Mithas

 

Before you reach for your Latin dictionary, I’ll save you the trouble. It’s a quote from one of my all-time favourite book series – The Dragonlance Chronicles, written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (1984-1985). The quote is the oath of the fictional Knights of Solamnia, a group I have always been particularly fond of. In the Solamnic language, it means “My honour is my life,” and it is something that my preteen self really latched on to.

 

Personal honour means something different to each of us, but to me it means, “Do what you say you will do and do what is morally right.” It’s an extremely simple ideal, but one that I brought forward with me through the three decades since I first read those books, and one that I hope I remain true to today.

 

With the message decided, what remains is the timing of its delivery. Like the telegram Marty received from Doc Brown at the beginning of “Back to the Future 2,” I would want it to arrive when it would have the most impact. For me, this is easy:

When I was 18, and finishing up my secondary school education, I had a bit of what we refer to over here as “a wobbly.” I lost faith in my direction, as many young men do at this time. If I were to receive this message back then, I think I would have appreciated both the sentiment and underlying meaning without endangering my future position.

 

We are, at times, our own worst enemy. Receiving this bolt from the blue at that time of my life would help me defeat the lingering self-doubt and regain my mojo a little sooner. A small thing, perhaps, but it would help 2018 me look back on that time with a little less negativity!

So, that’s my story, and my message, dear reader! I do hope you enjoyed reading this small insight into the person behind the moniker “SilverbackSays.” If you are to take anything at all from this lumbering piece of writing, I hope it’s the gentle reminder that every decision we make, every action, has an impact on others. Being honourable is as much about being true to yourself as it is about how you treat others, and what impact your actions have on the world around you.

 

Here’s to hoping you have a fantastic end-of-year celebration, and a prosperous (and dare I say honourable!) 2019!

 

Cheers!

 

 

To ponder the question of “What would I tell my younger self?” makes me think of moments of regret – the “if only....” moments. Hence, the temptation is to pass on knowledge to that younger self that might in some way change my current circumstances. “You should really study that second language. You’ll have opportunities to travel the world later and that will be a useful skill. Plus, thinking in multiple languages can allow for a broader interpretation of your inner and outer world experiences.” “Listen to your mom and practice your piano. You have no idea how much joy music will bring to your life.” Then your younger self responds, “Sure, okay, can we go get some ice cream now?”

 

 

 

 

It might be an excellent exercise to do just that. Sit down and have a discussion with your younger selves. What do you really know of this person anyway? They’re as much a stranger to you as you are to them. They’re just the

collection of stories about significant moments you have recited for years. What is going on inside their heads is as out of reach to you as is what you will have for lunch two weeks from now on Tuesday. Neuroscience and psychology, in recent decades, have advanced human understanding of memory and how imperfect it is. Our recall appears to be a reconstructive process influenced by our current state. If you are a contented adult, you could be more likely to recall the pleasant childhood memories. On the flip side, when you are sad and lonely, you might recall your teenage years when the angst caused by perceived social exile was at its peak. This is what researchers in the field currently call “memory bias.”

 

 

Daniel Schacter, PhD, in his book, "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) describes it this way. “Bias is retrospective distortions produced by current knowledge and beliefs. Psychologist Michael Ross, PhD, and others have shown that present knowledge, beliefs and feelings can skew our memory for past events. For example, research indicates that people currently displeased with a romantic relationship tend to have a disproportionately negative take on past states of the relationship.” This especially rings true when I try to teach someone else about something I developed some mastery in. It’s difficult to remember what it was like not to know. It would be helpful to reproduce that state of ignorance because you could more easily guide someone out of it.

 

 

So, who is this younger me? In this state of ignorance about things that will come? Would I be able to talk with them in a way that enlightens them? In thinking about my past selves, my childhood self, etc., I wonder: what do they know that I have forgotten? That is more interesting to me. What can these past selves tell me that might heal a lingering scar? Is there something I am remembering incorrectly? I have so many questions for this past me. So, “Hey kid, let me check with my digital assistant on my smartphone to see where the closest Ben & Jerry’s is, so we can grab some Chunky Monkey. We’ll take an Uber.” To which he might respond, “Okay, sure, but can we go get some ice cream after that?”

 

 

 

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

*Any discussion on the merits or risks of time travel should include a warning that anything changed in the past can have unforeseen ripple effects dramatically altering the future, including your own existence in the present.

**Unless, of course, you are like a college friend of mine who got the same dinner from the same restaurant every Friday night for years.

Time travel is an alluring concept, isn’t it? Change your fate, prevent disaster, or give yourself a second chance… all can be enticing ideas. If I was granted one opportunity to have a conversation with my past self, my gut reaction would be to say something silly such as “hold on to that hard drive full of Bitcoin,” or “stay away from spiced rum,” or maybe “that change you’ll make to the network on June 6th, 2017, is going to break everything.” Humor aside, what would I say if a magical wizard appeared and gave me the opportunity to travel back in time and provide myself some advice?

 

Given a choice? Nothing.

 

I’ve never been a fan of changing or dwelling on the past. Maybe it’s the millennial in me (hush, you) but living in the moment is much more interesting. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never experienced true disaster, something I count as a blessing every day, or perhaps I’m just a pessimist. Some folks might try to correct a mistake, attempt to change a negative outcome into a positive one, or simply offer encouragement, but I can’t help but wonder what that small ripple could do over time. Would it introduce doubt and regret? I think I would spend the rest of my life obsessing over how I could have done better or said something different. This kind of over-analyzation is why I should never be granted a Wish spell in Dungeons & Dragons. The point I’m trying to make is that the past makes you… you, and that’s worth something.

 

With that out of the way… let’s stop overthinking this and throw caution to the wind. Imagine this magical wizard was holding a wand to my head, and I had to go back in time and give my younger self some advice. What would I say?

 

During my last two years of college, I worked a full-time job and took 12 credit hours of night classes at the same time. These two years were the most stressful time in my life. The pressure of working my first real IT job as a network administrator and the stress of extending my last year of college by a few semesters, all combined with daily life, was enough to fundamentally change my personality. My poor wife went through the ordeal of seeing the person she was hoping to marry (we were still dating at the time) become an entirely new person.

 

The advice I would give my younger self is this: make time for life. Friends, family, relationships, and your own mental health are so much more important than good grades in your college years. A degree is useful, sure, but to this day, nobody has ever requested a copy of my academic transcript, and likely never will. Those grades didn’t matter, and because I failed to realize that fact, I put my degree before everything else. I experienced burnout so severe that it changed who I am as a person. It changed my thought processes, my sense of humor, and my creativity. During those years, I didn’t make time for the things that really matter, so I would tell my younger self how important it is to be a human first and a homework robot second.

 

So how do you deal with burnout? I’m sure we’ve all been there, and I want to hear about your experiences. At such an early stage in my career, it will be humbling to learn from so many seasoned IT professionals in this community.

To me, 12 years old:

 

Don’t hesitate. Push through your fears and accomplish all the things you were given. Have faith in yourself and remember to always focus on having fun. Don’t let the bad stuff make you forget about the good stuff. Spend all the time you can doing the most challenging things you can in life! Remember that you have an immense amount of love to give out to the world, so be sure to let other people see just how happy we can all be together. All those things that sound cool? Do them!

 

Backstory: I had a lot of opportunities growing up to do a number of different things, but every time they came up, I hesitated and the only one to lose out was myself. I’m incredibly happy with the life I live now, but I would certainly have pursued a lot of different things had I not hesitated when opportunities arose. It is this weakness where I have failed myself, even though through failure I have ultimately found success.

 

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. And with hindsight being 20/20 comes the reality that if you don’t hesitate, you may burn out that much quicker. So, mindfulness and balance become key. Nobody can truly know which leap of faith is the good leap of faith, and which leap of faith is maybe not the wisest leap of faith. I still wonder about the alternate realities of my life and where I’m at, but nobody can guess where those would have ended up in the long term. Had I started a business at 12 when my friends and I were burning to do so, who knows? Had I started a business at 14-16 with other friends when they were desiring to do so, who knows? Would I have been able to? Just as the future is hard to guess, so is the past.

 

 

So the point is, your own natural inclination to hesitate is both right and wrong. Mine seems to have been right every time I’ve hesitated but I still wish I hadn’t all the same.

You’ll live in an era with more technology, more formal education, and more wealth than any generation before you. With the pace of technology, you’ll get to play with things that won’t exist in generations before or after you. Inspiration is everywhere, but you’ll rarely see it if you aren’t looking for it.

 

Discipline yourself to routinely invest time to:

 

  • Find an unanswered question that excites you. There are many questions that are important to answer, even if it takes generations to arrive at the answer. Find a way to contribute! You have more power to change the world than you know.

 

  • Fill your time with unfamiliar experiences and learn new skills. Say yes to opportunities to do things you have no experience with, even ones you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy. Discover something new about yourself and your potential.

 

  • Teach other people. Share your skills! Realizing how much you’ve learned and how helpful those hard-earned bits of knowledge can be to underserved communities will open your eyes to how much undiscovered potential there is in the world.

 

  • Discover more things to be grateful for. When you count your blessings, take an extra moment to list out three things that had to have happened to make those things possible. The randomness and statistical unlikelihood of these things will renew your belief in the overall goodness of life.

 

What are your favorite memories that are exclusive to your generation?

What are your favorite unanswered questions?

Who might benefit from a couple of hours of your time?

Do you have an example of something awesome that’s happened, where three seemingly random or unrelated things had to happen first?

What makes YOU feel inspired?

Advice:

The future is hard to guess, so don’t.

 

Having grown up in the information technology industry, initially as a developer, a product leader, and now as an executive and CTO leading technology for a public company, I have gleaned a wide range of lessons from my professional and personal experience.

 

As technologists, we face a professional landscape that embraces highly charged evolution, where the demand to understand and keep up with innovations can sometimes be overwhelming. At the same time, the pressure to perform and succeed is ubiquitous in becoming a high performer in the tech industry. So… if I were to imagine myself addressing a scrappy and ambitious younger self, stressing about navigating ambiguity and career, what would be my single advice to him?

 

“The future is hard to guess, so don’t.”

 

Abraham Lincoln is often attributed with the following quote: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” This quote perfectly captures my approach to any professional environment. We must be proactive, take ownership, and create the future we want.

 

Today, I spend a large amount of my time thinking strategically about where my team and our organization needs to be to address the needs and demands of our customers. It’s one of the reasons we have such a unique perspective on innovation—we ask our customers directly about the problems they need to solve and focus most of our innovation energy on how to solve them easily and efficiently. The more you try to guess around items like “innovation,” the more likely you will fail.

 

If I foresee obstacles or challenges in a plan that we are working toward executing, I target elements that will influence (or eventually influence) the materialization of a desired outcome, and I ensure those elements are accomplished. This makes it a lot easier to navigate ambiguity and prepare for unknowns. So, what does it mean to create your future?

 

Here are two important practices that I believe will set you on your way to improving the odds of taking ownership.

 

  1. ) Focus on the “HOW.” A lot of people talk about the “why,” and then go straight from that to the “what.” Oftentimes, folks fail to identify how something can (or could) happen. The “how” determines the manner or means leveraged to accomplish a given goal.

 

For instance, take the issue and conversation around global greenhouse emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise even though we are aware of the consequences of this phenomenon and have invested billions of dollars on policies aimed at curbing the rise of emissions[1]. How is this occurring, when it seems that the “why” has been clearly illustrated with a litany of “what” items already implemented like taxation on emissions, timelines on automobile companies to improve MPGs, increase in alternative energy usage, etc.? Well, not having an articulated and agreed “how” that identifies the challenges associated with something this complex leads to the “what” items becoming not as effective to address the problem. I have seen this play out similarly in teams, organizations, and companies throughout my career.

 

How many times have you seen a “vision” (the why) painted clearly with a bunch of action items or mandates that are then pushed throughout the organization (the what)? How many times have you seen this fail? How many times have you seen leadership surprised that it did?

 

Spending more time on developing solutions that address the “how” of a problem you face will inevitably optimize your time troubleshooting and securing a desired outcome.

 

  1. )    Continue to add to your toolbox. Continuing personal development is critical. This is not the same as professional development. Professional development focuses on our ability to maintain the skillsets necessary to execute and perform well in our job, such as maintaining your certifications and developing your emotional intelligence. Instead, I am challenging you to pursue personal development that can support diversified thinking. Educating yourself in an area that has nothing to do with technology is a good thing. Do it, and you will be a better technologist for it and have a diversified knowledge base and skills to help drive strategic objectives.

 

Personally, I diversified (and continue to diversify) my portfolio of skillsets by helping different teams, departments, and companies. I’ve done various things like spearheading a special project supporting our legal team when dealing with contractual matters so that I can better understand contract negotiations. I’ve also become a champion of HR initiatives like college recruiting and leadership development programs to better understand how to drive learning and engagement from a diverse workforce. Taking time and going above and beyond to learn in these other areas eventually led me to be able to take on broader roles like General Manager of business units, not just technology teams.

 

  Creating a sustainable and successful future is not easy. The time you take to invest in yourself and start thinking critically about forging your desired path, whether it be in a professional or personal endeavor, is critical for success. Like me, you will stumble and fail at times; however, that is when you learn the most and will develop the experience necessary to succeed the next time.

 

- Joe Kim, EVP and CTO at SolarWinds


 


[1] https://www.gao.gov/key_issues/climate_change_funding_management/issue_summary

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