In my dreams of wild success

In my dreams of wild success, I am not an executive, not a manager, not a consultant, not a seller. I am a maker.

I don’t architect complex systems. I build on the human scale: small, simple tools that make individual people’s lives better.

The mechanical translation of designs and diagrams to code has moved to other countries. Development is seen as less valuable, less interesting, less glamorous. There must still be opportunities for invention, for finding a need and solving it.

I love the concrete progress of checking requests off my list, delighting people, and building something that saves people time and effort.

This is interesting for me, because I’m learning that my happiness map can change, and there’s always more to learn. It turns out that I’m more passionate about coding than about coaching people on collaboration or helping executives learn about emerging business trends.

Maybe work is like happiness. It’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey. I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy what I used to do, too. There are multiple ways forward.

Like the way I learned to not stress out about “potential” in life, I need to learn how to not stress out about “potential” at work.

I don’t have a clear path for myself yet. I haven’t picked a life out of a catalogue and said, “That’s who I want to be.” I haven’t picked a job description and made that my goal.

I don’t know. There, I admitted it. This might discourage people from investing in my career. Who wants to groom someone for a particular field and then have them cross over into a different one? But I’d rather be clear about figuring things out than pretend that I’m certain.

I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about what we can do at IBM as we learn how to work smarter. I enjoy helping people brainstorm and innovate. I’m exploring this with IBM because I’m in the right place at the right time, and I can help make bigger things happen.

But I want my life to also include rolling up my sleeves and making things myself. At some point in my life, I want to build systems that people will enjoy using.

Maybe I’ll take a sabbatical in a number of years. Maybe I’ll free up time to do this as a hobby.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll find more role models for this other path, and my dreams will expand to include what I’ve learned from them too.

What do you see in your dreams of wild success? Does it match how you’re living?

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  • I don’t know. There, I admitted it.

    I have the “Cult of Done” posted on the door of the office and don’t read it nearly enough. It says there are three states: not knowing, action, and completion.

    I think your not knowing is a huge asset — it means you are open, curious, flexible.

    I enjoy helping people brainstorm and innovate. I’m exploring this with IBM because I’m in the right place at the right time, and I can help make bigger things happen.

    But I want my life to also include rolling up my sleeves and making things myself. At some point in my life, I want to build systems that people will enjoy using.

    One thing that might be interesting to think about is that the things you are describing are processes you want to improve. Brainstorming and innovating are tasks in a larger process. “Bigger things happen” is the outcome, but I’ve noticed you’ve generally left that fairly open ended in your talking about your work, as ‘whatever someone has the passion and drive and desire to see happen.’ You leave the visioning and direction to them, and see your value in empowering them to be More Awesome. It’s wonderful.

    I point this out because as an urban-planner-in-training interested in public engagement, I have been (and am increasingly more so now) grappling with the questions of caring about outcomes. One of my milestones in this journey was surely the day my then-future-boss asked whether I was passionate enough about an open, participatory and collaborative process, to put up with unwanted outcomes. I only kinda-sorta got what she meant at the time, but now I think about it now daily.

    An example, to take it out of the abstract (and this is the one my then-boss gave me too): I’m super-interested in public engagement processes and getting people to work together in ways resembling open-source software collaboration for better results in things outside software, like complex urban systems. But what if, after undergoing a consultation process, it turned out that people wanted to, oh, stop paying taxes, abolish universal healthcare and expand the right to bear arms? As a believer in things being better when we work together, I’d be devastated by those outcomes — and yet the process may have been exactly as I’d wanted it to be. And I will have committed myself to the rigor and quality of the process.

    This is a bit of a trick hypothetical, but I think it’s important to keep in mind for those of us who are focused on and interested in processes. In my field, there’s a perceived need to be publicly neutral on the fact that we as individuals would like to see certain outcomes, because there’s some navigation to be done around power. But I’m quickly coming to the opinion that any change anything worth making is going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, somebody’s vision of the future, and the best way is to work with them rather than fight them.

    I want to build systems that people will enjoy using.

    I guess what I’m challenging you a bit with, by sharing my experience with you, is whether or not you have any outcomes you are interested in once people have engaged in a happy process. Do you want them to enjoy using the system so they can use it less to spend more time in the garden, playing the guitar, with their children? Are you OK with leaving the outcomes outside the focus of your work?

    My outcomes are rapidly becoming these (and I really ought to re-blog this while I have it down! :D) — I want to improve the quality of life in cities equitably for the physical and mental health of its inhabitants, by creating systems enabling mindful and sustainable allocation of energy, time and resources. Outcomes related to this include improvements in transportation infrastructure; ownership and empowerment in the processes of improving a city through robust, reliable systems of learning from failure and feedback; and social justice.

    In the end, perhaps, the outcome I want is not so different from yours: the ability for others to have resources (time & skills in both our cases; some more communal physical infrastructure in mind) to do the right thing. They may or may no do it in the end, but not because they lack for enablers.

    Still too abstract? Let me know. ;)


  • @sachac If you’ve figured out that your dream is to be a maker, that’s significant progress.

    I read into this that you want to continue to keep your hands dirty, and like to see concrete artifacts of progress. This is in contrast to advisory roles and coordination roles. It doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t develop in an organization … although you have to find yourself the right contexts to continue doing that.

  • Quinn: Makes sense to me. I’m interested in the process of collaboration, the tools, the practices. I’m not focused on collaboration in order to achieve a particular end. If I can help people figure out how to work together better, they can do incredible things that I wouldn’t have thought of doing. I like brainstorming ideas, and I like structuring conversations that help people brainstorm ideas. Possibly more than the ideas themselves.

    I may shrug and recommend a different technology evangelist if the group’s goal is to lock down the organization, though. ;)

    I want to help people have more aha! moments. More “Hey, you’re working on this, too?” moments. More “That _is_ cool.” moments. More “I rock” moments. I suspect that the path to that may not involve making systems people use (unless I can grow into someone like Jonathan Feinberg, who seems to make awesome things just because: Dogear, Cattail…).

    But I like making tools that help me ask interesting questions, or make things a little bit easier for people, or pull together different things. So I’m probably wrong in that blog post. I don’t know yet if I’ll enjoy making systems that people will enjoy using. What I already know is that I enjoy making systems that make people’s lives a little bit better, whether they know it or not.

    For example: the Planner personal information manager, which I maintained a long time ago. The point of a personal information manager is to support the way you work, and then to fade into the background so that you can work instead of thinking about how you work. Think of a river and the way it smoothens the stones it flows across. I enjoyed smoothening the parts that people used, tweaking it for people’s particular work habits, so that people could stay in flow.

    A more recent example: a little script I wrote to make it easier for community organizers to get the e-mail subscription URLs. It’s a little bit of duct tape between two systems. Most people who’ll benefit from it will never use the tool directly – they’ll use the links that community organizers have added to the tool. It’s a tiny little thing. But it was fun to make, and it reduces the friction by just a bit more.

    Hmm. That’s an interesting thing there. I like reducing friction. I like working on small things (done with great love, as the saying goes)–small things that make people’s lives a little bit better, that make work a little bit easier so that people can focus on what they really want to do.

    David: A number of people have suggested looking into technical sales. I like making quick proofs of concept, so that might be a good thing to explore.

    Also, another mentor reminded me that I’m probably always going to be a maker, building little tools to make life a little easier. I don’t know if I want to relegate it to being a hobby without investing the time and effort to explore what it’s like to do it really well, though.

    What would “really well” look like? Hmm. Usable – maybe even somewhat polished-looking. Scalable. Responsive. Neatly, elegantly coded and documented – the kind of code other programmers are happy to work with, and the kinds of programs that help people instead of getting in their way. I’m not a bad developer, but I’m not at that level of awesomeness yet.

    So right now, I make things, but they’re really just for me or for a handful of other geeks. I can work in a team to build more general-use stuff. If I can get better at development, then I can continue to build little tools on the way to other things, and more people can use those tools. I think of it as investing to get better ROI.

    I understand programming well and I know what the next steps would be. On the other hand, I know that things that are more outside my comfort/understanding zone can be even better for me. In what other areas can I work on going from good to great?

    There’s writing, and communicating in general. Very useful, although fuzzier and harder to plan, develop, and measure. “Really well”, here, would probably be being able to recognize, name, and explain complex things in ways that help people understand and be interested.

    There’s connecting. This is interesting because I’m working on getting better individually, but at the same time, I’m also working on pushing the capabilities into the network and the infrastructure so that other people can do it well. “Really well” means being able to remember and make those connections, and shifting the culture so that more people can connect well.

    I’m thinking about this early, I know. I have years to develop these competencies, and I’ll probably work on a little here, a little there. It’s good to think about what I want to focus the opportunities that come from work challenges and 8+ hours of work a day, though.. Communication and connection, I can develop as hobbies. Coding, too, a bit – but focusing on development/design during my “day job” will probably make me grow even faster. As for the other things I do (process improvement? virtual facilitation? coaching?)–is there enough of an intersection to make it worth getting really good at it, compared to other things? Hmm…

  • Checking in two years later. How are you feeling about this? What are your new dreams and definitions of wild success?

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