Things I Believe

The World is My Oyster

As my birthday approaches, I've become more introspective about myself. What am I doing with my life? Am I making an impact? Am I happy? Am I growing?

As I ponder the answer to these thoughts, I find myself with more questions than answers. Which I suppose is a good thing. Those questions will lead to more answers and even more questions, and by the end of my life, I suspect I will have decided that either those questions never mattered, or that part of the mystery of the universe is that not all questions can be answered.

But that's another blog post, I suppose. Today, I want to talk about some of those answers, and specifically, answers that have led to the value system that I hold dear to myself.

Mistakes happen -- it's how you react that matters.

I've never been what one might call a perfectionist, but I have always hated making mistakes. I doubt anyone loves making mistakes, so that hardly makes me unusual, but I've let myself be governed by fear of mistakes for a long time. It wasn't until the last five or six years that I started to realize that mistakes don't just happen -- they're what make us human. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, shit happens.

But what do you do when something goes wrong? Do you shrug and say "It's too hard," and walk away? Do you cry over it? Do you lose sleep over it?

I've chosen to say "Well, that sucks. How can I make sure I don't do that particular thing again?" From there, I'll generalize a bit more. "How can I make sure something like that never happens again?"

And, of course, I'll make mistakes doing that. That's how life goes.

So many people spend countless hours of their lives trying to avoid mistakes, but mistakes are inevitable. You will say the wrong thing. You will break production. You will offend someone. You will drop a gallon of milk on the kitchen floor and have to spend fifteen minutes mopping it up.

Instead of avoiding mistakes, embrace them. Take reasonable efforts to mitigate them, but when they happen, adapt and overcome.

Once I realized this, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. My life is significantly less stressful these days. I make mistakes all the time. That's fine.

Lesson: Mistakes happen -- take them as opportunities for growth!

Health matters

Like many of you, I didn't take care of myself very well when I was younger. When I was 28, I went to a dentist because of a tooth ache, and she told me I had thirteen (13!) cavities, and I had to get them fixed. You bet your ass I started brushing my teeth regularly after that. My wallet and bank account wouldn't let me do anything less.

I ate like a teenager. Pizza every other night, a 12-pack of Dr Pepper every couple of days. I ate pasta and bacon and burgers and cheesecake. I love cheesecake.

I moved to San Francisco in 2011, and within six months lost 30 pounds just from walking 2 miles per day, to and from work. I realized quickly how much weight I had put on. By 2013, I was running 5Ks and training for half marathons. I switched from regular soda to diet soda.

I didn't do it because I didn't want to be fat, but rather because I felt healthier. I felt happier. My feet didn't ache from walking to work. My back didn't hurt from carrying my backpack around. I started falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I could literally feel my happiness levels rising every time I worked out. Endorphins -- a hell of a drug!

Today, I'm in basically the best shape of my life. I didn't consciously make it a lifestyle for many years, but in the last few years, I've realized the benefits of thinking about fitness and diet and overall health. I've put a little bit more effort into it. I make conscious decisions to exercise, to choose a healthy snack over an unhealthy one. I always liked ice cream, but I never loved it. I don't miss it at all.

Lesson: Just 30 minutes a day of exercise and a conscious look at diet is a game-changer.

Social Life

I'm an introvert who likes people. The definition of an introvert isn't someone who is shy, but rather someone who gains energy by being alone. That's me. I like people -- but too much exposure makes me want to crawl under the covers and spend a weekend alone to recover.

During COVID lockdown, however, I reached the limits of my introversion. Almost all of my friends had kids over the pandemic. A lot of friends moved. Between those three things, our social lives took a huge hit. My wife and I largely spend our time at home with each other.

It's getting to me. Don't misunderstand me: I love my wife and spending time with her is my favorite activity. But it's just enough to sustain my happiness levels.

Here's what I think is happening: Our brains are wired to ignore safe things and to pay attention to novel, unusual things. Novelty means risk, and risk is dangerous. Our brains perk up when something unusual happens, because it just might save our lives if we pay attention to it. Safety, on the other hand, sends our brains to sleep. We ignore things that are safe.

Consider your clothing. Within seconds of putting your clothes on, your brain ignores it. It's the safest thing in the world, it's on your body all day long, and it never threatens you.

Now imagine that you spend three years in a bubble. It's you, the four walls of your house, a TV, and a computer. And maybe you go to the grocery store every now and again. Once, those things could have been novel. But after three years, your brain starts to stop paying attention. It gets bored. It gets lazy. It gets -- I hate to say it -- depressed.

About three months ago I had this epiphany, and I decided to start going back into the office once a week. On Tuesdays, I make the trek into San Francisco, and surround myself with the six other people that also bother to go to the office. My brain is on hyper alert the entire time. From the time I walk out the door, to getting on the train, to walking through the city, to sitting down at my desk. When coworkers walk by, my brain lights up. When someone talks to me, my brain lights up. When I get to eat lunch with a colleague and talk about anything but work, my brain lights up.

My mood has improved significantly in the last three months. I've incorporated other social events, such as lunch at kid-friendly places with our old friends, traveling to new places, and simply dining out again. We went to trivia night at a local bar a few weeks ago. It was only my wife and myself on a team, but the sheer novelty of being surrounded by dozens of people all frantically trying to answer trivia questions was enough to keep my brain engaged.

That night when I got home and went to bed, I was out like a lamp.

Lesson: Your brain likes novelty. Engage with it and see life improve.

Check Yourself before You Wreck Yourself

When I got my first startup job in San Francisco, I was an enthusiastic young programmer. I tackled projects with reckless abandon -- so recklessly that after introducing a few dozen bugs, my boss pulled me aside one day and gave me perhaps some of the best advice I've ever received in my career.

He said: Eliminate the phrase "it works for me" from your vocabulary.

He went on to elaborate. People don't complain about things that work for them. It takes effort -- a lot of effort! -- to file a complaint with a company. There's a ticket that needs to be filed, there are explanations that need to be provided. Screenshots, back-and-forth Q&A, maybe even a phone call or a Zoom call. That's a lot of effort to go through for a made up problem.

If one person who went through all that effort was having a problem, then how many other customers were seeing it and just abandoning us, instead of writing in?

Instead, he advised me to deeply investigate the problem. If it works for me and not for them, then what's the difference? Is it environmental? Is it confusing technically? Is there a weird edge case?

I decided from then on that I would take everyone's bug reports at face value. I would assume it was broken until I could prove otherwise. And often, I was able to prove it. But more often than not, it was a bug. An elusive one. Maybe a setting was toggled incorrectly, or maybe it was an older browser that couldn't handle the updated code. Maybe they were more than 500 miles away.

Only after I had definitively proved there was nothing broken would I go back to them and gently say, "We can't reproduce this. Can you provide more information?" And from there, about 80% of the time it would turn out to be user error. I treated them with respect, and they treated me with respect. It worked out.

Customer satisfaction went up, our code got stronger and more robust, and my boss was thrilled with my performance. I got my biggest raise ever that year.

Lesson: Eliminate "it works for me" from your vocabulary; people don't complain about things that work for them!

Work: It's Just a Job

At that very same startup job, because I was recklessly introducing bugs, my boss put me on support ticket duty. My job was to look at all of the bug tickets that came in from Customer Support, investigate the bugs (never saying "it works for me"!), fix whatever bugs were present, and then update the ticket so CS could let the customer know.

This was a brilliant move. I'm now an excellent debugger. It taught me how to think about code in ways that most engineers probably never achieve. But that's not the point of this.

I would walk into the office at 8:30 every morning and have a backlog of 40, 50 tickets at a time. I would go through each one, investigate, submit a bug fix, and move on. I would do this all day, every day until I got to inbox zero. This often meant I wouldn't leave the office until 7:30pm.

One day, miracle of miracles, I had a date. I had to leave early to get ready, so I could impress this woman that weirdly agreed to hang out with me.

To my absolute horror, I had 10 tickets left at 5:30. I had to abandon them.

The next day, I went back to the office, and I logged in to find 55 tickets on my backlog. I was already behind, and I knew I would be working even later to make up for it. These were paying customers with PROBLEMS and I had to FIX them or I would SUCK AT MY JOB.

That say, I had a series of epiphanies:

  1. Nobody complained about not having answered those 10 tickets before I left.
  2. My boss didn't even notice. He just asked how the date went! (It was fine. No second date, though. Meh.)
  3. Every day since I had started doing this, I'd walk into 40+ tickets per day.
  4. It didn't matter how many I closed the day before, there were always more ticket.
  5. What the heck am I doing?

To make a short story long, I realized that day that there was always more work and most people did not expect immediate turnarounds. I had been working to respond to tickets within minutes or hours of receiving them, but customers weren't expecting answers for 2-3 business days! I was overworking myself!

From that day on, I showed up at 9am and I left at 5pm, and nobody blinked. Boss didn't complain, customers didn't complain, my work got done, albeit slightly slower, and I still got promotions and raises. And, well, look at me now. I'm successful.

Work, it turns out, is just a job. It's a 9-5 grind of something that I happen to be passionate about, but it is not my life, it doesn't define me, and perhaps more importantly, nobody else expects it to either.

Lesson: Work is just a job. Work 9-5. Nobody truly cares if you're hustling in overtime. Anyone who does care is not thinking of you as a person, but as a code monkey, and you should find a new job.