Category: Career

January 14th, 2014

Up until last April, I had never touched the ocean.


I had been close to the ocean. I had travelled under the ocean. But I had never actually ventured out to it – never tried to take in its size, or let the salty remnants of millions of years of biological change wash over my feet. The ocean was a thing outside my realm. The ocean was as foreign as India or Japan.

Last April, I finally did it. I touched the ocean. The Pacific Ocean, scene of a million surf wipeouts and Instagrammed sunsets.

And now, here I was. Ready to do the same on the opposite coast. I got out of my car and walked toward the water.


I used to dream of airports. Each was something new – a way to experience the thrills I had only encountered in a Choose Your Own Adventure. There was freedom in knowing that, given the right situation and the right funds, I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. Any damned where I pleased, with just a few hundred dollars and the proper identification.

I still do dream of airports, but in a different way. Now, they’re weird nightmares, where I miss my flight or I show up too late to conduct a meeting.

At some point last year, travel became an occupational hazard; each ticket was a debt to my life, and though I enjoyed myself when I was supposed to enjoy myself, I had unwillingly traded my dreams for anxieties. I measured each new city by the number of days I had remaining – the number of days until I could return home. And I began to fear the consequences of enjoying travel too much, of getting too comfortable being on the road.

There’s no way to be peaceful with a new city if you’re rushing to do business and counting the days. There’s no more discovery: there’s only debt.


When I was in grade school, I almost drowned at Wall Lake. I was floating on a neighbor’s inflatable pool lounger when, as I reached for a toy in the water, I fell off. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but the wake and action of thirty other swimmers forced the inflatable pool lounger away from shore.

As I chased it, the water became deeper. Each grasp pushed the lounger further away. Each step I took increased the panic, until, flailing around, my host for the day – our neighbor, who moonlighted as a lifeguard – saw me struggling. She dove in and saved me.

I had graduated from swimming lessons a few years before. I knew how to swim. I knew that I was in danger. But I still kept trying to make things right, to prevent loss, to be safe instead of smart, pushing myself just a little further into the water. In doing so I nearly lost everything.

I was still a kid. I never knew how much this would haunt me.


I neglect to tell Sierra and Isaac about my work travel until the last possible moment. Sierra is riddled with the same anxieties I am: an irrational fear of natural disasters, a belief that when her loved ones leave they may never come back, a super-sensitivity to being embarrassed. Isaac carries those same concerns out of love for his sister; he’s concerned when she is, over-exaggerating each issue in the way a four-year-old does.

My kids become irrational when I’m ready to leave – clinging to me as if I was joining the foreign legion – and they become pills when I’m gone, pushing buttons on every issue. Each trip is a change to routine. Each trip is an added level of stress for Kerrie. Each trip forces the questions I never thought I’d ask.

Do I want to do this?

Do I want to travel?

Am I doing all I can to be a good father?

Of course I am. I never doubt my efforts for long. But that doesn’t mean the same thoughts don’t creep in every time I stand in a security line, one hand throwing my belt and shoes into a bucket, the other chancing upon a bracelet Sierra made, or a few coins I found hidden under Isaac’s rug. I collect these things as I toddle around the house, picking up after myself, but I always assume there’s a bigger reason they end up in that security bowl.

Then I shake it off and shove them back in my pocket as I walk to my gate.


I parked a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, near a beach that shared my name. I stumbled through the sand, wondering how I would remember this moment. I felt proud. I was charged. I was going to surprise my kids by saying LOOK AT WHERE DAD ENDED UP! because I had already decided that the ocean was too much for this bummer of a weekend. I felt empowered by my sudden change of heart. I felt like the lead role in a Springsteen song.

Until I instinctively checked Foursquare.

If I hadn’t tried to check in, I’d have never known that I wasn’t at the ocean. I’d still think that Corey Beach is on the Atlantic and that I’d scored a completed pair. I’d never know that, despite that sudden change of heart, this wasn’t one of the fun Springsteen songs.

I did check. And the ocean was over there, in the distance, on the other side of the outer barrier across Patchouge Bay.

I got back in my car and stared at the beach.


I was afraid of water until, one day, Kerrie forced me to buck up and jump in.

I was afraid to travel to a conference and speak until, one day, my boss told me to just go do it already.

I was afraid to leave home until, one day, I came home and my kids were cool with it all and excited to get presents.

But I still remember the time I pushed it too far. I’m still afraid of going too far past the buoy. I still stay up at night wondering when one step will be one too far, when my charge has slipped past my reach, when my energy has run out and all I can muster is a hand raised in the air as I slowly sink.


When I was a kid, I took one trip a year. My family would pack up the car and we would head to Jackson. It would be stomach-turningly early when the lights came on to leave – a feeling I still encounter on the eve of a trip, where the excitement of discovery is mixed with the fear of the unknown, a queasy churning that’s only solved through a few cups of coffee and an hour of driving into the sunrise.

I knew what travel was, but my scope was limited. It included a car. It included going west. My destination was filled with loving family. It was safe, and it was comforting, and it was always beautiful.

My destination moved wherever my grandparents did, whether it was Wyoming or Kentucky or Minnesota. It was college before I knew what real travel was. I found myself in Paris, struggling with a new language. I found myself in London, seeing things I’d only seen in movies. I was in Seattle, taking mini-pilgrimages to the sites of my favorite bands. I was in Washington DC. I was in New Orleans. I was everywhere.

I wasn’t comfortable, but I was willing to learn. I was an anomaly, I think: my desire to keep moving overcame my fear of the unknown, so I just jumped on a plane and did it.

I want my kids to have a enjoy that kind of movement. I don’t want them to fear the unknown.

I want them to fall in love with countries I’ve never visited. I want them to go on trips that expose them to great friendships. I want them to wonder. I want them to understand that the Midwest is beautiful and perfect in nearly every way, but that they’ll never understand just how perfect it is until they’ve stepped outside its border.

I don’t want travel to be a fearful thing, despite the fact that I now dread traveling without them.

Because instead of enjoying the time I spend in a new city, I now fear the nights they crawl into bed and I’m not there. I fear the dinners when they ask when we’ll be a real family again. And I fear the point when I hate traveling by myself and, as an extension, hate what leads me to travel in the first place.

More than that, I fear that they will see that fear, and they will understand it as a part of traveling. I fear that I will affect their sense of adventure. I fear I will kill discovery before it starts.


My heart sank.

This wasn’t the ocean. I drove here for nothing.

I saw that my short car ride had been for naught, that I had fooled myself in thinking that I was close, and I saw that my only real recourse was to head back to the hotel and watch Netflix and drink a beer and feel shitty and disappointed. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was working, and I thought I didn’t really care but suddenly I did.

But everywhere I looked I saw small people spending the holiday on the beach, making castles and diving into the waves and doing other cliche small people things as their parents looked on, exhausted from the wind but happy that they could sit back and look on. Those small people on the beach reminded me of my small people back home, which reminded me of everything back home, which reminded me that I would be doing my entire family a disservice to ditch this mission – to shake my head and give up, to admit failure. To let the pool lounger go.

So, for once, I refused to give up.

“Fuck it.”

“I’m going to the ocean.”

And I got in my car and drove south.

November 5th, 2013

Yesterday, Sierra picked up a book on the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the book was in English, the captions were still in French. She read them anyway.

“Less troys rosettes noter dayme dee paris est lun dess grands chefs dee lah churn-ten.”

Sierra is six, yet here she is, fearlessly hacking through incomplete French sentences as if they were just another set of words she hadn’t yet learned in first grade. To her, she’s simply learning to read, and these are new words. She doesn’t know it’s a new language because every word is part of a new language.

In each new incarnation of my professional career, I’ve been dropped into a new language, and I’ve pushed forward with fervor. When I first tasted call center middle management, I was eager and ready to work. When I became a copywriter, I devoured every resource. Now, in the impossible to contain web industry, I still find myself going off on tangents, assuming I’ll need to know everything about everything.

These early days allow us to work without history. They allow us to do what we think is right, without censorship, because we haven’t yet been proven wrong.

This happens with films and books and music. We launch ourselves into genres without regard to what’s considered “legitimate.” We fall in love with bands like Coldplay and Pearl Jam before we hear the negative reviews and backlash. We take it all in, because it’s all new to us.

Each failure tempers our exploration. We cut back on tasks and narrow our vision. We stop taking chances, because we know what we’re supposed to do.

But maybe we should just keep reading on, regardless of the content, regardless of whether or not it’s within our bounds. Of course we should learn from our mistakes, but maybe we should spend less time trying to prevent them in the first place.

Maybe we should pretend we’re French, even if only for a caption or two.

Category: Career, On..., Words, Writing

May 6th, 2013

Through one major project and two conference gigs, I’ve spent the past two months being pressed under the weight of responsibility, my thoughts rarely wandering from my workload. It was an albatross. It was always there. And now that it’s over, I am at a loss.

Which is not to say I didn’t look forward to being finished. I did. I did very much.

“Finally,” I thought. “I’ll be able to focus on something else.” Get back to writing. Get back to taking care of months of photography, of taking up all of the hobbies I had abandoned, to release my mind from the grip it had around projects and speaking and let go a bit. Exercise. Get some sleep. Kill the anxiety.

But I’m frozen. I’m stunned. I don’t know where to start.

I’ve spent the past two months being pressed under the weight of responsibility. I dug myself out from under it. I forced a tunnel out of the stress, and emerged at the other end, bathed in freedom, ready for the sun. Instead, all I can do is blink my eyes and ease back. All I can do is hunker back into the tunnel until I’m used to feeling normal again.

Category: Career, Writing

December 7th, 2012

Though we hate to admit it, we’re all, in some way, defined by the tools we use. The stuff we do and the things we love and the legacy we create is all deeply tied to the tools we use to get the job done – to embrace our inner neanderthal and the extensions we pick up.

Tools are specialized. They are created as a response to a problem, and they solve a very specific issue. Plumbers have specialized tools, and if you use those tools on a regular basis you are more likely to be defined as a plumber. Even those of us who use tools with wide use – laptops, or pen and pencil – are further subdivided by the solutions we use within that larger tool’s ecosystem – apps, programs, styles, brands.

I think the differences in toolsets – and the reasons why we choose them in the first place – is really fascinating, and for that reason I’ve always been drawn to The Setup – a site that focuses on what people use to get stuff done. There’s a definite focus on tools, here – equipment, apps, hacked-up solutions – over method, which, admittedly, can be dangerous. (There’s nothing worse than those moments when you realize you’ve spend hours getting a THING set up so you can actually begin doing the STUFF you want to do.)

Some of my favorite people have been featured, including:

Knowing I’m just some punk web strategist, I’m making the assumption that I’ll never be asked to submit to the site and, instead, I’m going to just lay it all out right here. This is my bootleg version of The Setup. (Without the cool URL, unfortunately.)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Corey Vilhauer. I am a web strategist who still pretends he’s a writer. Sometimes I take pictures. I also blog about beer.

What hardware do you use?

I’m currently on a year-and-a-half old 15″ MacBook Pro. On the go, it’s just the laptop, but when at my desk at work it’s accompanied by two Samsung SyncMaster PX2370 23″ monitors – the better to cross-reference spreadsheets and style guides with, of course. My backups are also all handled at work through a 1TB Western Digital My Book external hard drive. I have a Magic Mouse, and my keyboard is wired.

My second screen is an iPhone 4S, which is what I now use as an iPod despite also having an older Classic 80GB iPod. I used to use an iPad 1, but ours has gotten so slow it’s difficult for me to use if for anything but reading from the Books app.

I write in a Moleskin because they’re wonderful. I use Energel Liquid Gel Ink pens. It’s all contained in Incase products – an Incase iPhone 4 Slider Case, an Incase 15″ MacBook Pro messenger bag that they don’t sell anymore – because I like Incase a lot.

There was a time I fashioned myself as an amateur photographer (I’m really just a hobbiest now who takes fancy pictures of his kids) but I still use an older Canon Rebel XTi (a.k.a. the EOS 400D) which is an entry level DSLR released in 2006. I’d guess 95% of the time I’m using our Canon 50mm 1.4f prime lens.

And what software?

This is where things get fun. I’ve already posted about how I write, but since then the tools have changed slightly. I write in Markdown using BBEdit as my text editor for posts that will end up as HTML, and I’ve begrudgingly turned back to Pages for documents and deliverables that require an extra level of formatting. (I used to be a MS Word guy, until it started taking minutes to open up.) My files are sorted by a weird combination of client, deliverable and version number – CLIENT DELIVERABLE YYMMDD. This helps my computer keep different versions of a document in chronological order.

To organize my life I use a sync of OmniFocus across my iPhone and my laptop. I use and often hate BusyCal when it comes to calendars, and the revolving door of calendar apps on my iPhone has landed – for now – on Fantastical. I still use Sparrow both for Mac and iOS, even after the Google purchase. I no longer know where things live on my computer because I’ve become an Alfred devotee. I also can’t remember a single one of my passwords because I use 1Password.

At work, we use a combination of a time-tracking system called Redmine and an newly minted intranet built on EPiServer. File sharing and internal discussions happen almost exclusively over Skype. When I need to edit graphics I’ve got a copy of Adobe Creative Suite 4, and when I need to mark things up and illustrate problems I’ll snap a screenshot with Skitch, which I’ve just learned is a part of Evernote.

Most strategic deliverables, as mentioned above, happen in Pages, but wireframes are created in OmniGraffle and presentations are hammered out in Keynote. In the rare case that I’m fooling around with code on one of my three WordPress blogs, I turn toward Expandrive and Smultron.

I’d talk about browsers, but my allegiance changes based on how much trouble I have with the current one. I love things about both Firefox and Chrome, and find myself ditching one for the other every four or five months. It’s a problem.

When I’m not doing work things, my software skews almost exclusively toward iOS. I use Tweetbot for Mac because I love Tweetbot for iOS, and the same is true for Reeder as an RSS channel on both devices. I use Instacast for podcasts, Pocket for time-shifted content, Lose It! and Runkeeper for the times when I’m trying to be healthy, and I use the official apps for Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare.

I read in Books because that’s where all of my books are. I listen to music with iTunes because I have a lot of music there, and when I do it’s with Bose AE2 headphones. I use Adobe Lightroom for editing pictures, and they all end up on Flickr because Flickr is the best place to host images for Much More Sure.

What would be your dream setup?

I don’t know that there’s more I’d need compared to my current set-up, though I imagine someday I’ll get the upgrade to a retina display. My work is a lot of meetings and documents, so as long as I have a fast text editor and a way to export documents to .pdf I’m set. I love the idea of the MacBook Air, but I also cherish a larger screen – when the two become more viable, I’ll jump toward that.

April 10th, 2012

I popped up from the ground and ran. I was bleeding. A lot. My face was a mess, mashed into god knows what. But I couldn’t think about that. I was only half a block from my house, so I ran. I just ran.

Behind me lay my bike, left behind in an awkward angle, its front wheel released from the frame and its front fork jammed into the grass. The reflector lay strewn across the parking lot. My friend, who shifted from laughing to not laughing to genuine concern, ran behind me, trying to catch up.

I would later recount the scene to my father, my mother, an admitting nurse and a reconstructive surgeon: I was a half block from my house when my wheel had come off my bike. I was riding down a hill. The fork of my bike came down first, and I went up and over. My face went into the concrete. Where I slid. Where I spent just fractions of a second, jarred, confused. Then: alive.

I was alive. But I wasn’t hurting. I wasn’t in pain.

I was scared shitless.

Not Knowing Enough To Know What You Don’t Know

The web moves quickly, and we struggle to run along with it. I was reminded of this at the recent IA Summit in New Orleans, where I found myself hanging out with a group of the weekend’s speakers. As we laughed and ate and drank and talked about anything but information architecture, I realized that these people knew each other from way back. I was lagging in both familiarity and experience.

And, as the weekend rolled on, I realized just how much I was lagging in knowledge. The people I had spend the weekend getting to know were all accomplished speakers who could engage in hour-long discussions on IA, while all I could do is sit back and soak it in. I walked into the conference expecting to learn more about information architecture. I never expected to leave learning just how much I didn’t know about the field.

Turns out, this isn’t rare. This shit happens all the time.

Here’s some dude walking into a meeting with his first big client. Here’s a new author who’s signed an agreement for her first book. Here’s a small-time strategist who’s been asked to speak intelligently with much smarter people about things that may or may not be over his head.

These situations are common. They are called “New Situations”,” as in “This is something you’ve never done before.” They are situations in which we are required to be on point, knowledgable and charming, lying through our teeth about our experience. At all times, we’re scared to be found out, which means we’re scared of being discovered as an amateur.

As if we didn’t all start as amateurs. As if we weren’t all scared when we started something new. The difference is whether we took that fear and used it to our advantage.

My Little Black Book

I collect fears like some collect phone numbers, storing them away for future correspondance. Each one is categorized by relationship, given its own avatar and recalled as the mood fits.

Here’s a section I like to call “Professional Disembowelment.” It’s filled with doubts. I met them all when I started writing, and they still threaten to tear me apart. There’s the Fear of Being Found Out. There’s the Fear of Hackitude. There’s the Fear of Speaking and Not Knowing What I’m Talking About. The gang’s all here, folks, and they’re ready to party.

Sometimes, I steal fears: “Will My Child Be Okay?” and “Am I As Big Of An Asshole As I Sometimes Seem?” are things I’ve seen manifest in close friends. “Will I Be Overweight Forever” was borrowed from the Mass Media Television Complex. “Am I A Good Husband/Father/Friend” was lifted from everyone, everywhere, ever.

We all have these little black books, where fears and anxieties collect and pool and begin choking on our ability to work and create and live. They stop circulation. As the pools become muddy and still, they continue to coalesce until we do something about them.

We can ignore them and watch as they silently take over. We can accept them and stay stagnant. We can confront them and learn from them.

I never delete a fear. I never know when I’ll need it again.

Here’s a Moral, I Guess

Without fear, I am nothing.

Without the fear of being left behind, not accepted by my peers, forced to live in the nerd I’ve imagined myself to be, I’d have never met any of my best friends. What’s more, I’d have never met Kerrie. I’d have never captured her heart. I’d have never learned to feed off of her strength.

Without being thrown into a new industry, forced to write by the seat of my patched-together pants, scared to death that a client was going to come back and ask why they had hired such a damned hack, I’d have never pushed myself to become better.

Without the fear that I’d be left out of something wonderful, I’d have never moved toward the web.

Without the fear that I’d be discovered as a fraud – scared shitless that I’d open a drawer and find a litter’s worth of rabbit feet, proving that everything from the past five years was an extended exercise in luck management – I wouldn’t keep fighting to learn more.

Where there’s fear, there’s consciousness. We don’t fear things we don’t care about. I am who I am because I’ve stopped fighting the uncomfortable. I’ve accepted fear as a necessary part of progress, separating it from anxiety, using it for good instead of for ulcers. I haven’t done anything special – nothing that we all can’t do. I just bucked up and accepted life. Accepted fear. Accepted progress.

Without the fear, I stand still. We all do. Fear is the next killer productivity app.

We Move On

It only took a few minutes to get to the emergency room. My mother arrived shortly after. I was bandaged, gauzed and cosmetically altered, my chin sewn together and swaddled in gauze.

I usually forget about the accident, but I’m often reminded of the scars. I can still feel the lump where my tooth punctured my lip. I can still see the white line on my chin that refuses to beard over.

I can still feel the impact. Every time I get on a bike. Every time I ride down a hill. Every time I wobble, my tire sticking in a curb or against a railroad track.

What’s more, I feel it every time Sierra gets on a bike in the backyard and starts riding in circles. I feel it every time Isaac, unaware of his own mortality, speeds down the sidewalk head first, feet dragging, full speed. It was my accident – my blood, and my shock – but I’ve saddled them with the repercussions. I hover over them, I coddle them, and I sometimes block the warm rays of carefree childhood.

When I was a kid, I was scared of people. I’ve never gotten over that; struggling against the undertow of introversion has become one of my pastimes. I hope that my kids will learn from my mistakes – that being scared is okay, that you SHOULD be scared, that you can’t progress without the fear of failure and the fear of mistakes and the fear of being discovered.

But they probably won’t. They can’t. They have to make their own mistakes. They will develop their own fears.

They will learn from them. They will become stronger. On their own. In time. With or without my help. Which means all I can do is hug them and comfort them and hope they learn their lesson long before I did.

September 14th, 2011

I was going to be a teacher once. It didn’t work out. Outside of a few transcendent moments from breakthrough students, I simply wasn’t cut out for it.

I respect teachers more than any other profession, especially with the weight of experience behind me; with the understanding that Teaching. Is. Hard. Work. So I often think of the teacher who inspired me to try teaching in the first place: Mr. Hofflander in Biology I and II.

It’s not often you can thank your teachers. But a new site from TBD makes it a little easier: Dear Great Teachers, Thanks for Teaching Us.

I put my two cents in.

Dear Mr. Hofflander,

Thanks for doing biology the right way; which is to say, doing it in a way that leaves a permanent mark on your students, one that pushes them – possibly – to become teachers themselves, and one that helps them cope with the fact that, even though they may not be cut out for teaching, they will find their own niche, just as all successful species find their own niche through a process of natural selection and differentiation.

You inspired me to make mistakes and learn from them.

Your student,
Corey Vilhauer

Grade: 12
School: Lincoln High School
City: Sioux Falls, SD

Thanks, Mr. Hofflander. Again and always.

Via: @sigepcory.

Category: Career, Education

May 24th, 2011

Hey, you guys. Remember back in November when I said I was starting a content strategy blog and that I was pretty excited about it?

Well, I started a content strategy blog. And I’m pretty excited about it.

What are you waiting for? Go visit Eating Elephant. And learn about content strategy, you nerd.