Category: Anxieties

August 12th, 2015

1

“Right, when do I put the guitar on?”

There was no guitar. There was no part to play. There was only playback of a song – “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26-minute long, nine-part opus celebrating a lost friend.

It was Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd Barrett – an original founder, a drug-addled star, a mind lost at sea. Barrett was instrumental in Pink Floyd’s early sound – a weird mix of space psychedelic and Cambridge jazz. But over time, the drugs took hold. He became a liability on stage, and he couldn’t quite come back from the acid haze.

This post originally appeared August 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

One day they simply decided he was too far gone. They didn’t pick him up for a show. They found a replacement. They said goodbye.

And seven years later, as they sat listening to a recording of what would become part of their iconic album Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett suddenly was. Unannounced, overweight, balding. Only Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters recognized him.

Barrett was ready to play. He just didn’t realize the band had long passed him by.

2

There are industries that move slowly. The natural sciences are build on centuries of slow build, the slow and onerous crawl of evolution only allowing for so much new discovery. History doesn’t change, though our understanding of it becomes clearer. Water flows the same way and electricity rarely changes, so journeyman trades rarely have to scrap everything and learn again.

The web, however, stops for no one. In the past decade, every tool has changed. And while the concepts we champion are still as relevant as when A List Apart was still just that – a mailing list – the way we do things changes faster than we can keep up with.

This is not a sob story about how hard today’s web workers have it. We still sit in comfy chairs and clatter away at keyboards for a living; we still have the jobs our parents would have died to have, luckier than we may ever know. But we also have to understand that this is because we’re at the right moment in our lives to accept constant change.

Our web is one of shifting sands. Without the right balance, we’re bound to fall.

3

I wasn’t liked as a kid.

I should rephrase that, actually – I wasn’t noticed as a kid, which is all you need to know about my thirst for attention when karaoke night rolls around. I, like many of us who ended up falling into IRC and chat rooms as a kid, was simply unprepared to deal with the reality of relationships. I was afraid of being wrong.

I still am. Every word I write is an untapped grenade. I’m always waiting for one to explode in my face.

But despite this, I still love speaking. (Parts of it.) I still love going to conferences, and interacting with co-workers, and mingling and talking to smart people. I still think its amazing when someone remembers my name. Who me? Little ol’ Corey? Aw, shucks.

It’s this writing, though, that’s helped me push away from that kid that wasn’t noticed. I gain a little confidence every time. I’m cool with the public, y’all – married dad looking for acceptance, apply inside.

But not so much, you know. Because. Ugh. That shit’s still hard.

See, I thirst to be seen. But on my terms. Then I’m ready to sneak back into my shell. An introvert, I guess; a term that’s both overused and still crucially important as we peek from behind our computer screens and realize our generation forgot to take the opportunity to talk to real people.

I don’t want to be forgotten again. I want to be a part of something great, and I’m scared shitless that I won’t be. That things are moving away from me. That I somehow missed the memo that we’re all supposed to be doing that thing and holy what where are you going and why aren’t we talking about the stuff that I know about?

My fear isn’t of being noticed. This isn’t middle school. My fear now is of becoming irrelevant, like I’ve seen so many people do before me, ignorant or arrogant in the face of change. My concern isn’t that I’ll be passed over or forgotten – it’s that I’ll wake up and find out I could have done something to stay in the loop.

Fear of missing out, sure. More like a fear of losing ground.

4

Over the past five years, I have built a strong core of friends who, to be honest, I am afraid to talk to.

They are industry leaders. They are independent consultants. They are people who have their shit together.

And sometimes …

Well, sometimes, they don’t have their shit together. Sometimes, they have no idea what they’re doing. But they admit that.

They. Admit. That.

What kind of black magic does it take? Where does that strength come from, to not only constantly improve and feel at peace and chase after new opportunities and generally free yourself of the need to worry about being informed and accepted?

At what point does it feel like things are going to be easy? That the keynotes start rolling in and the projects become second nature? Where is my lake home, and where is my piece of mind?

Sometimes, I get the courage to ask.

Sometimes, I say it out loud. “I’m … I’m afraid I’m falling behind.”

Sometimes, I show my cards. I reveal my secrets. I use all of my cliches.

Every time, I get the same answer.

“You’re fine. None of us know what we’re doing. Things move too fast to ever get comfortable.”

And I feel better. For a little bit.

5

I don’t know if it comes from my childhood – those days when all I wanted to do was be a part of the pack, settling instead for an eight-bit broad sword and a bowl of macaroni and cheese at home.

I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome – as overused a term as “introvert” but just as damning for a person’s self esteem.

I don’t know if I’m just lazy. Or if I’m looking in the wrong direction. Or if the constant need to be sure I’m doing things right – an over-reliance on methodology, the inability to decipher good advice from bad – is making me doubt my common sense and intuition.

Maybe, it’s just that we all suffer from some kind of doubt, and for some that doubt makes us work harder, and for others that doubt makes us look at things we never thought we’d consider.

There’s nothing wrong with being behind on something, as long as we can admit the gap and work to close it. It’s the basic structure around learning – we work to bridge the spaces in our knowledge, bringing things closer and building a stronger infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with falling behind. There’s not even really anything wrong with not noticing for a while. The fault lies in knowing exactly what’s wrong, and moving on as usual.

And that’s what I fear. That someday I’ll just give up. That I’ll wake up one morning and find out I no longer have a place. That I’ve unknowingly been passed by – that I was learning the wrong things, going in the wrong direction, betting on the wrong horse. And I won’t care.

I’ll be standing in a room, my old friends staring at me, wondering where I’ve been. No guitar in hand. Hoping to play the next solo.

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June 12th, 2015

Iowa doesn’t seem like a big state until you’re 150 miles into it, on day two of a week-long bike ride. But it is. It’s long and hilly and hot. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes they run out of pork chops along the side of the road.

Sometimes you have to stop. And that’s where I was.

This post originally appeared June 5th, 2015, as part of The Pastry Box Project.

RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Big Race Across Iowa – was a kind of legend in our house growing up. My father had made it all the way across when I was just a kid, and though he never did it again it was still a point of pride. It was a dream to me – to take a week off work and family and life and just ride, 75-some miles a day, alone and in my thoughts beside my wife and tens of thousands of other like-minded people.

More than that, though, it was a dream to find myself at the finish. To hold up my bike after dunking it in the Mississippi. To conquer Iowa.

And I had all the confidence I could do it. Until we approached Emmetsburg.

My knee tweaked. I fought the pain and kept going, riding harder, pushing up hills, against the wind, trying to stay in line. And, finally, as I rode into town, our resting spot for the night, the pain became too much.

Five blocks from our camp, I got off my bike.

I could barely walk. My eyes were stinging from sunscreen. I limped along.

And then I cried. Because I wasn’t going to be riding the next day – if at all. The dream was done, and I wasn’t prepared for how much that would hurt.

Convincing Myself

Sometimes, I speak at conferences. And while my talks are about methodology, and making things smaller and more usable for resource-strapped teams, and empathy for co-workers and editors, I ultimately fall on a common topic: the myth of perfection.

I talk about how the web is an imperfect ball of twine, tangled and knotted and unable to be smoothed out. There are inconsistencies that can no longer be unraveled. We are all learning this as we go. Rah Rah Do Your Best.

I stand up in front of rooms of 20 and crowds of 300 and I talk about how we can’t be perfect, and people tweet things and they come up to me after and say how great it is that I’m talking about how imperfect we all are and how brave. And that’s awesome. Except.

Except, really, it’s not about them, is it?

Over the past five years, through dozens of talks and articles, from conversations with clients and co-workers, among friends, at bars, as we’re walking, I stress the importance of finding value in the lack of perfection. This is my soapbox. This is what I think I believe.

But I’m not trying to convince an audience of attendees or peers. I’m trying to convince myself.

The Myth

I know there are people out there who understand that perfection is a myth. Hell, I understand perfection is a myth. But I’ll be damned if I ever remember that when I’m staring down a deadline, tweaking and primping some unnecessary details, my head filling with doubt, my gut twisting like it’s spent too much time in the Gravitron.

I understand, but I rarely believe. I’m there, every time. Trying to make things perfect.

That’s what we’re taught. That perfection is accessible, that giving 110% percent is a goal. The urge to “try our best” is, by definition, reaching out for perfection – doing our best to make something perfect. Something flawless.

That’s a great thing to be able to do. That’s why we try to maximize our productivity, and that’s why we learn new things, and improve our methods, and practice practice practice.

It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be perfect – to make things as good as they can get. It’s just that we have to redefine what perfect means. To understand that being perfect doesn’t mean overanalyzing everything. That being perfect is a point in the distance that we drive toward, a black tower that guides our path.

Perfect’s a good goal, as long as we understand we’ll never make it there. You can still win the pennant even without a perfect game.

I Used To…

And with that, I can look back at all of my failures and realize what really happened.

I used to be a photographer. I used to be a teacher. I used to read and I used to write a lot more.

I used to be patient. I used to understand.

I used to be a lot of things, and I had reasons for letting off. I saw people who had done it better, or I had recognized my own inconsistencies. I gave the fuck up. I just figured if I’m not going all out – if I’m not impressing people – then what’s the point in trying.

And that’s too bad. I sought perfection in places where I’d never find it – not with my limited attention, not with my personal quirks.

But I’m getting there. I’m getting confident enough to try again. I’m just doing. I’m not worrying whether things will work out. I’m just doing the work, understanding it doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m just doing things. And I’m just doing it for me.

Finishing Over Completion

The end is the end, no matter how many miles you rode in the middle. You get to the Mississippi, and you dip your tire in. RAGBRAI is over. You made it.

For a split second, I thought I had. And then I remembered day three. Who was I to claim this feeling? Who was I to say I rode RAGBRAI?

It wasn’t until the drive back – seven of us in the back of a camper, drinking Coors Light, our bikes wedged into the front and our sunburned legs wedged into the back – that I understood what RAGBRAI was. Not the start and finish. Not the miles, or the hills. It was the people. The community.

In the back, we had four people who had ridden every mile – sometimes more. We had two who had taken a day off to rest. We had one who had only ridden three of the seven days. But together in that camper, as things got dark and we retreated back west, erasing every mile, we were all riders.

Perfection be damned. There’s always future rides. At that moment, we were all together as finishers, even if we hadn’t completed it.

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October 21st, 2014

The first time I spoke in front of a crowd was on what was then the largest stage in the content strategy industry: Confab, in Minneapolis.

It was 2012. I was about to drop Fugazi references and pictures of my great grandmother’s cookbook and surprisingly no fart jokes. I was hoping not to shit myself, to be honest. I had somehow attracted a standing-room only crowd, despite no one knowing who the hell I actually was.

I swallowed. And the first thing I said was a complaint.

“I just realized I missed cupcakes.”

Snack time had just occurred. There were cupcakes. Fun fact: I don’t really care about cupcakes. I think they’re fine, and I will eat them when I am offered, but there’s no way I cared more about cupcakes at that moment than, say, the integrity of Keynote or the status of my zipper or whether or not I might actually throw up right there in the middle of that conference room carpet.

But I talked about cupcakes. That’s what I did.

I started my talk. I nailed a few jokes. I started capturing the audience. I thought, “this is going well.”

And then, Jared Spool brought me a cupcake.

And I thought, “Well.”

“I guess this talk is going to go okay.”

And it did. I killed. I may have peaked early in life, presenting my best right from the get go. I may have notched a little mark in Confab history by being the annual “Where Did That Speaker Come From?” of the 2012 conference. I may have realized I did okay once I had stopped shivering in my hotel room from the “speaking shakes.”

I don’t remember any of that. I remember, instead, two things.

1. Dan Eizans audibly laughing as the only person who got the Fugazi joke.

2. Jared Spool bringing me a cupcake.

To risk sounding macabre, it’s all been downhill from there, folks.

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July 5th, 2014

“This must be what the Londoners felt like during World War II,” I said to a friend last night.

She corrected me and said, no, actually, they were probably scared shitless, and we’re just sitting in the backyard. We fully understand that they these are just fireworks. They will not harm us. They will not take our home or family or country.

Yet, as the third straight night of slow rumbles lull me to sleep – booms and crashes off in the distance, seconds apart, like we’re living in the suburb of a warzone, with lights flashing and the occasional close rock of noise, our dog ruffing and huffing as if he too thinks it’s a warzone – I still find it unsettling.

It’s a miracle that our children have already fallen asleep, but they haven’t watched the war movies I have. It’s a weird way to celebrate our nation’s birthday – by recreating the hell that our country went through to get to this point.

Then again, I don’t care about motorcycles or power tools or heavy machinery. Neither does our dog. We’re just built to lie in the dark and remember that this is all part of being free. Free to blow things up. Free to enjoy a little release. Free to feel anxious, forever, for always.

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