Feeling Like a Kid

July 12, 2009

While I endlessly enjoy being an adult, there are some things that I naturally miss about being a kid.  Not really having a care outside of what I was playing with at the time, no bills and creativity that was uninhibited by social concerns are just a few.  While those are difficult traits to have as adult, I know of one sure fire way to feel like a kid again.

Solve some really hard problems.  So much of what kids do is problem solving and it’s easy to see and hear their excitement when they find a solution.  That’s a reproducible feeling but it gets a bit more challenging as I get older because I’ve solved a bunch of problems already and the ones that are left (which are many) tend to be a bit more complex.  No longer is making a stack of blocks an accomplishment, so the trick is to seek out and find equally challenging problems, adjusted for age inflation.

Last Thanksgiving I started working on what is now the foundation for my startup.  At the time this was a project unlike any I’d ever started, I didn’t even know if it was possible to accomplish what I was setting out to do.  If it was technically possible, I wasn’t sure if I had the mental goods to pull it off.  Thankfully I’ve still got some hubris in me and I wasn’t going to let worries of what reality might be get in the way of finding out what reality really is.

I use the word hubris cautiously because it has a pretty negative connotation.  Its definition usually includes other wonderful words like arrogance and overconfidence.  These are characteristics that most people wouldn’t want to have applied to their general self but I’m wondering if they can be useful to your problem solving self, perhaps even necessary.

Arrogance – having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities
Overconfidence – excessively confident: mistakes were made through being overconfident

Are these really bad characteristics for problem solving?  I don’t think so.  Hard problems are relative to the individual and all hard problems tend to crush ones confidence at points.  So an exaggerated sense of what one can accomplish could be helpful in getting over self imposed barriers.  As for making mistakes, they should be embraced, not feared.  They teach you what doesn’t work, which leaves your mind free to try a new path that is more likely to succeed.

I think not knowing the path from A to B is what ties problem solving to feeling young.  I like to think of each experience in my life as forming a little path in my brain.  The more I travel down the same path the more defined and worn in that path gets.  Travel a path enough and it turns into a rut.  Seems like our brain can pretty much be on cruse control when going down these defined paths.

Don’t get me wrong, very well worn paths are useful things.  Without them performing complex tasks like playing a musical instrument would be impossible.  But simply following those paths doesn’t really stimulate your brain in the same way.  Getting out in the wilderness and doing some bushwhacking, that’s the kind of activity that your brain did all the time as a kid.  This is why you never hear a kid complaining that they are stuck in a rut, there is just so much to be explored.

As I say goodbye to my 20’s, it’s not really an accident that I’m trying to lay down a bunch of new paths in my brain and the good news is that it’s working.  The feelings that I’ve had while working on my startup have been nothing short of childhood bliss.  There has been more than one occasion where I was so excited after solving a problem that I ran out of my house in the middle of the night in uncontrollable laughter.

So the next time you’re wishing for some of your youth back, find yourself a hard problem, have a bit of hubris and start working on it.  If it’s a sufficiently hard problem it will take a while to solve it, but in the meantime at least you’ll be distracted from getting older.  While it’s not as quick as going out and buying a fast car or something like that, I will guarantee that the results will feel better, make you smarter and be a lot cheaper.

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Before going on a hike today (self employment rocks), I stopped by Jamba Juice for something to tie me over until lunch later in the afternoon.  The Jamba employee (or Jambalee for short) was a rather chipper young man who called himself Jimmy.  There was one person in front of me and as this customer gave Jimmy his money, Jimmy replied with “thanks boss”.  Immediately I was dreading Jimmy taking my order.

Sure enough, Jimmy called me boss when I gave him my money as well.  In fact, he called everyone boss and multiple times at that.  “Blackberry Bliss for Carla…  Here ya go boss”.  While annoying, it isn’t the lack of creativity that Jimmy had when addressing people that bothered me.  It’s the use of the word alone that I have a problem with and here’s why.

First off it’s simply an incorrect usage of a word for the given context.  Some may claim that its usage in this case is considered slang but I’m not buying it.  Besides, boss is already slang for excellent or cool.  Nope, when used as a title for another individual boss only has one meaning and it’s to denote that the person is your superior.  Not only am I not in charge of Jimmy, I don’t want to be in charge of Jimmy.

Second, essentially when someone calls me boss they are insulting themselves.  Why would someone voluntarily do this?  I can’t imagine that a person feels empowered after using the phrase.  If every random person that you serve is your boss, how much control can you have over your life?  Are they trying to boost my ego by making me feel like I’m important?  While I suppose some would appreciate that, I just can’t see the masses of service workers so willing to help out the egos of their customers.  I worked in a service job when I was in high school and it takes enough energy just to maintain your own ego while wearing one of those uniforms that there isn’t anything left to give.  Something isn’t adding up here.

I love sarcasm, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I feel like this usage of boss is actually a sarcastic remark.  I’m not convinced that everyone that’s using it intends for it to be sarcastic because lets face it, pop culture tends to be a bit of an echo chamber (in fact, I wonder if an echo chamber is a requirement for pop culture, but that’s a different topic…).  If I’m right about this, then calling someone boss is actually a backhanded complement.  Thanks Jimmy.

The difficult thing with backhanded complements is that they are often hard to reply to.  Treating it like it was a genuine complement only feeds into the desires of the person who gave it.  Replying with a backhanded complement of your own is a natural and somewhat satisfying reaction but that puts you on their level.  So what’s a good response to being called boss?

A part of me wants to treat their usage very literally by replying to the statement “thanks boss” with “you’re welcome subordinate”.  This is what I’ll call the Dwight Schrute response.  Somehow I don’t think people would enjoy hearing that all too often and they may think twice about using the phrase.

To stay on The Office theme, Angela Martin would take the direct approach and reply with something along the lines of “I’m the boss of my cats, you’re not good enough to be one of my cats, so stop calling me boss”.  While I’d love to see the look on someone’s face after that line was delivered to them, it’s not my style and I couldn’t hold a straight face.

Toby Flenderson would either take the polite route and ask that he not be called boss or perhaps the passive aggressive approach by filling out an anonymous comment card for the establishment.  While the polite route is probably the most adult way of dealing with it, Toby is pretty much ignored as a character and would likely get the same treatment in this case as well.

Stanley Hudson would go for the “whatever” reaction by uttering a “Ahhhh huh” while filling out a crossword puzzle while Roy Anderson would probably just punch the guy.  So maybe looking to The Office characters isn’t the greatest model for a response, but it sure is a fun one.

I don’t want to take all of the fun, so what would the other characters respond with?

A New Adventure

July 1, 2009

Adventure – an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.  Is it unusual?  Even in the bay area where the unusual is fairly usual, this isn’t something that the majority does.  How about exciting?  If it wasn’t exciting I wouldn’t be able to even get to this point.  Hazardous?  Compared to my outdoor activities, hazardous is a little strong but it’s not void of risk either.  So yeah, the word adventure feels like a good fit.  But a fit for what?

Starting my own company.

That’s right, in the midst of what I hope will be the worst economy in my life, I’ve decided to leave my comfortable and well paying job at Mark Logic behind and do my own thing.  It’s not a decision that I made lightly, in fact I’ve been pondering it since Thanksgiving of 2008.  I’ve given the concept plenty of time to soak in and as the weeks have passed I’ve increasingly felt like it’s something I have to do.

I had this moment in high school where I decided that the secret to my life was to minimize regrets and after 14 years it’s still serving me pretty well.  Yes this is a risky move.  Yes I could blow all of my savings on it.  Yes I could end up regretting that.  But what overshadows all of those could be regrets is the certainty of regret if I don’t try.  Plus, I’m at the point in my life where doing something like this only gets harder.

The more time you spend in financial comfort, the harder it is to live a life of minimalism.  Plus, for most people their thirties are a time of increased responsibilities in the form of houses and families.  These things seriously raise the bar on funding your own startup.

But the biggest motivator to take this risk is that I’m very excited about what I’m working on.  I haven’t felt this kind of excitement since I was working on my search engine in college.  I’m not ready to share all of the details about my project in such a public place but I will say that it’s very closely tied to my biggest passion, music.  So not only am I going to get to work on my own stuff for my own good, I’ll be forced to listen to music while doing it, what a hard life.

As usual I’ll do my best to share the details of this adventure on this blog.  Of course, if history is an indicator of the future I might get distracted for a while and have some gaps, but we’ll just have to see.

Many thanks to all of those that have encouraged me to give this a go as well as those that have given me a moment of pause, my determination is stronger thanks to you.