2013: The year in pictures

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I’ve taken a lot of photos over the past years — about 60,000. One of the cool things about being a photo nut is being able to look back and remember the moments you’ve had.

Capturing time and memories is one of the powerful things about photos. So many things come back to my mind just from a photo: sounds, smells, feelings, lighting, people, laughter and music.

So here are five of my favorites from 2013. I wanted to share a little about why they are special to me and how I shot them. If you’d like to look through more, I’ve created this set for 2013 on flickr.

1. Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia

cathedral

Tucked away near the gothic district of Barcelona lies this old church. The photo was taken near the entrance, hand-held, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4, 16mm, 1/25s

Why I love this photo:

  • Contrast of colors. The lighted dome represents purity and sanctity, while the area below is dark, dirty and imperfect. Not sure how to put it, but the contrast between the two makes my eyes happy — like pizza for my eyes.
  • Symbolism of the architecture. To me, the photo symbolizes the struggle of man and the difference between who we strive to be and who we actually are.
  • The size of the place. The cathedral was enormous, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would have been to build it back in the 14th century.
  • Gargoyles.  The outside is littered with gargoyles, and I remember going on the roof to see the city from the top.  The wind was crazy, but it was worth it.

2. Sagrada Família

sagrada família

This photo of Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s most famous landmark, is one of many I shot while in Barcelona. I shot this particular photo with an 85mm 1.4/f, handheld. Settings: f/2.8, 85mm, 1/100s

This photo reminds me of a spaceship. It is the canopy above the main altar. The inner dome is littered with very ornate decorations and bathes the altar in sunlight. It looks like something from another world — something man couldn’t possibly have built.

3. Point Arena Light

point arena light

The Point Arena Light is a lighthouse in a pretty remote part of northern California, about 100 miles northwest of Point Reyes. It sits on a thin peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This picture was taken from the very top of the lighthouse, handheld, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4.0, 16mm, 1/60

This picture reminds me of our last trip before Ella was born. It was the last time we’d take a trip with just us — Jaime, the dogs and myself. It was a time to think: about being a father, of the changes to come. And, yes, a little bit of worrying and convincing each other things would be okay. Luckily, they would be.

4. Hopes and Dreams

ella

Ella was born on May 12, 2013. It was the happiest day of my life. She was born with dark blue eyes and black hair. As she grew, her hair turned light brown and her eyes turned a lighter shade of blue, getting even lighter in the middle. This photo was taken with a 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Settings: f/4.0, 105mm, 1/60s

This photo reminds me of how I feel about Ella, sure, but it also represents how I feel about time. Ella, pictured here at about 5 months old, has an entire lifetime ahead of her. So many things to do, so many firsts and a world of possibilities before her. What fits in a lifetime is overwhelming — and she’s just starting.

When I look at this photo, I think about all of the things she will experience in her life. My hopes, her dreams — I hope she is fortunate enough to live well and reach her dreams.

5. A Place to Sit

chair

I started my new job on August 19, 2013. After nearly 10 years at Mozilla, which included the Firefox 1.0 launch and many different milestones, I joined Box. This is a photo of a bench at a ranch house in Santa Rosa. I was at a team off-site with engineering leaders, and it was the first time I really got to know some of my peers. It was taken with my trusty 16-35mm f/4, hand-held. Settings: f/4.0, 35mm, 1/200

I sat in this chair for a bit earlier that morning thinking about my life. I thought about the folks I left behind at Mozilla — there are so many memories, and I will always cherish them. I thought about my new colleagues, what was to come and my future at Box. I sat in that chair, between two worlds: the world I came from, and the world I was joining. I felt nostalgic, but after a while two feelings surfaced above all others: I felt lucky and grateful.

What a Year

Among other things, we had our first child, I changed jobs, I went to Europe for the second time, I officiated a wedding and said goodbye to my uncle Craig. It was a full year — a year of change, love and diapers.

To all of you who have helped me along the way: thank you. Let’s make 2014 just as awesome.

If you have time, check out my entire 2013 set.

Being a Dad

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Hopes and Dreams

How could I feel so much love for this little person I’ve never met?

I asked myself that when I first held our daughter.  Ella turns six months old tomorrow and I get the same strong, inexplicable feeling when I hold her.

The first time I met Ella, I cried.  I hid it well, but I cried.  Mostly, I smiled.  My cheeks hurt.  My heart swelled.

From the first day, I liked to watch her sleep.  As I watch her dream, I am in awe of the stark contrast between Ella and what amounts to a lifetime of experiences yet to come.  A clean slate, new beginning and sheer, utter innocence.

I envy her — I wish I could see the world without judgement or analysis.  To see things for what they are is a gift a grown man like me isn’t capable of.

What is to come?  Crawling, walking, first words, solid food (stinkier poops!) and so much laughter.  I hope to see her learn to ride a bike, throw a ball, swim, play music and run around in circles for no reason.  I want to be there.  I get to be a kid again, and I will be her sidekick.  Yes!

Before Ella was born, I spoke about how liberating being a father would be for me.  I was ready to be a dad because I was tired of focusing so much energy on things that didn’t matter.  I had to let go.  I would have someone else to take care of.  My own worst critic just got a lot busier with someone more important.

She freed me.  I was able to breathe.  In a way, she’s saved me from myself.

There are moments where Ella stops and looks up at me, almost to say, “hey Dad, you’re silly.”   In that moment, not a whole lot else matters.

Not the apathy of politics, the pain and misfortune in this world, the environment, chores, work, video games.  My faults, insecurities and baggage — it all melts away, like the crowd to a stage actor in the spotlight.  All wiped away — for that moment — by a smile, sound or touch.

Being a father is great, better than expected, and I try hard every day to just to enjoy it.  I try to see and accept these moments for what they are — nothing more, nothing less. Life is simpler, happier now. I have Ella and Jaime to thank for that.

Change is Good

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Having a child sure changes things. So does leaving your job after about 10 years of service. Naturally, I decided to make life interesting and tackle both at the same time.

Tomorrow I’ll be joining the engineering team at Box. Box is aiming to change the way people work and communicate — I’m excited about joining a great team and culture. It’s going to be awesome; even Ella is excited:

Ella in her new gear

So how have I spent the last two months? Well:

  • Watching Ella grow up way too fast
  • Traveling to Oregon, Yosemite and Mammoth
  • Riding my bike
  • Turned 35
  • Took time to reflect on my time at Mozilla, including replying to all of the emails I got when I left (I will miss you folks!)
  • Playing basketball and softball
  • Catching up with old friends
  • Finally getting around to finishing Torchlight (I & II)
  • Reading up on some tech and playing with some koans

It’s been a great summer. Living in the moment, being able to focus on just being a dad, cherishing this rare time in Ella’s life with Jaime by my side has been a blessing.

Now it’s time to get to work, which will be about building things and having fun doing it.

Change is good.

Thirty-five

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H1 at night

I distinctly remember sitting on the yellow fire hydrant outside my house in Mililani. It had a flat top — kind of an odd hydrant, really — but it was cool to the touch, even on hotter days. I used to sit on it and daydream while my father worked on cars in the garage.

I thought about life, why I was here or who I’d be where I’d grow up. I was eight, but something inside of me has always been older. I wondered who I’d marry — if I would ever be? — and what kind of adult I’d be. Would I be a scientist? An astronaut? A basketball player? A doctor? I’d think of these things as I tossed tiny red lava rocks over the retaining wall.

The thinking continued through high school, where I developed a fondness for writing. Creative writing, American literature and advanced writing taught me to see the meaning behind things. A scarlet letter, the eyes of a child, a handful of dust or a rye field — to some they are mundane, nondescript, uninteresting things. To the right person they are heavier than the world or brighter than the sun.

The last few weeks have been important for me. At thirty-five I’ve found space to appreciate the meaning of time, love, patience, loyalty, humility, family and friendship. I’ve the time to daydream again and I’m excited about what’s to come.

Last but not least: Thank you. To my colleagues, friends, family and all of you who have helped me along the way — my eight-year-old self could not have imagined a better life filled with better people. I am definitely lucky. Also, 7-11 serves free Slurpees on my birthday. What?!

Here’s to the next thirty-five.

Reorgs: choose wisely

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We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
- Charlton Ogburn, “Merrill’s Marauders”, Harpers Magazine, January 1957

Having been through a few reorgs, I can tell you that two requirements should usually be met:

  1. The change must be good for the org and mission
  2. The change should be good for the individuals involved

You should strive for both 1 and 2, exhausting all options, but sometimes you must choose just 1.

If you find yourself stuck choosing 1 over 2, it almost always results in people leaving. It causes boredom or animosity — both spell doom for an employee or team’s morale. Just be prepared to lose people.

I believe something is horribly wrong if you are in a position where 1 supersedes 2 and you have no better alternative than to lose valuable people — but it may not be worth over-generalizing. Just think about it.

BRAINS and the art of decision making

I went through a birthing class with my wife prior to having our first kid. They introduced a framework for making decisions that is universally applicable and works well with reorgs. It’s called BRAINS:

  • Benefits: What are the benefits of the reorg — for both the mission and the people involved? What is your vision?
  • Risks: What do you stand to lose by going through with it? Will you lose people? Will it slow your teams down initially? What are the costs if it doesn’t work out?
  • Alternatives: Is it not an org issue? What if you hired a key person to fix the issue, changed your process or reset priorities? What are other ways to address your concerns?
  • Intuition: Does it feel right? Would it feel right to the team? Are you finding it hard to defend it because it seems so counter-intuitive? Typically if things do not feel right, something is wrong. Intuition is usually overlooked with these types of things but it’s a powerful motivator for the org and has direct ties to morale. Pay attention to this and listen to what people are telling you.
  • Nothing: What happens if you do nothing? Sometimes letting things play out resolves problems. Time works miracles if you can afford it — but sometimes you can’t. That said, understanding the relative cost of doing nothing is an important yardstick when rationalizing change.
  • Smile: Smile because you made a decision. When all is said and done, if you can support your decision and commit to it, be happy you made one. Move forward and be positive — it’ll help things work out and get folks to come along with you.

The reorg sanity test

There are some questions you should be able to answer before bestowing a reorg onto your organization. So in the spirit of the Rands test, follow these questions and see how many points you end up with:

Is the reorg easy to defend? (+1)
Like relationships, if things are rocky early on, something is off. Most often promotions, reorgs and other changes feel right. Intuition goes a long way here and if the first general reaction people have is “huh? what?” that’s not a good sign. You’re looking for the nod here — when you explain it to someone it should be self-evident and make sense. If it isn’t, and don’t kid yourself, then no points for you.
Did you discuss the reorg with your team? (+1)
The idea that someone can draft a master plan, drop it on a group of brilliant people and tell them to just do it is draconian. In software, solutions built from the ground-up have galvanized buy-in as a built-in feature; this applies to organizations as well. If you’re making decisions without input from the org you are forgoing a valuable resource and missing opportunities to a) evolve your solution into something better b) let the org be heard and help them own the solution. If you shared your plans early and got feedback on them before making a decision, give yourself a point.
Did they like the idea? (+1)
First impressions are hard to change. When you shared your plan or decisions (whatever stage you were at) did your team like the idea? Were they uncomfortable? Was there an awkward silence after you explained the plan? Or were they happy about the change and reinforce it? If they liked it, give yourself a point.
Did your team come up with the idea? (+1) Did upper management? (-1)
If you are a progressive leader, your team may have even come up with the idea in the first place. Asking the right questions can lead to solutions. If your team actually came up with the new reorg plan, give yourself a big fat point. Good on you. If this is an idea from upper management and has never involved anybody from your team below a certain rank, subtract a point — you are creating issues with buy-in down the road.
Did you discuss the reorg with other parts of the company? (+1)
This is a transparency check. Did you make the overall decision without dependent teams knowing about it? If you shared the plan and did a dry run to see other groups’ reactions, give yourself a point. If you hatched your plan in private and the first time folks saw it was via a) being told it was happening via an email b) rumors — then no points for you.

If you scored 3 or less, you’re playing with matches. Some combination of top-down leadership and lack of transparency leads to issues with buy-in. It means your reorg, even if applied, will not stand the test of time and erodes trust in your leadership. It could make everything harder for you.

The golden circle

I mentioned that doing what’s right for the people involved is important. I think it’s arguable that rule 1 and rule 2 must always be met — but I know in practice that people can’t always just do whatever they want and there is usually a bottom line to uphold.

Some of this all comes back to what kind of leader you want to be. In relation with Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the golden circle, I’ve always striven to be the type of leader who leads with why, guides people to how and empowers people to discover the what.

A conventional approach is to start with what you want, tell people how you want them organized and explain why when the plan is shared.

I think a better approach is to help your team understand why changes are needed, help them find a solution for how they want to be structured and ultimately they will arrive at the correct what — the right org to match the challenges they face.

Leading with the why is inclusive and gets you better buy-in long-term. This means less of a cliff when the initial proposal is thrown out there. It makes transition easier but can get hung up on finding 100% consensus. Remember that even if you lead this way, you still need to make a call and push forward.

If all else fails, do your best to listen to your team and what they are telling you before and after you discuss the problems they face. The answer to how your organization should be formed lies within your team as much as it lies within you.

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
- Confucius

Ode to James Socol

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James Socol is moving on from Mozilla. It took me a week or so to digest what this means to me. Today I’m sitting here, in what would have been our weekly 1:1, writing this post because:

  • I’m not letting James leave without a proper tribute
  • I’ll miss working with him (a lot)
  • He is too humble to write a post about how badass he is
  • I couldn’t take him out drinking to dinner last week

What I’ll Miss

At the top

James Socol is a force of good. He can usually be found getting shit done and pushing forward every day. I’ve worked with James for about four years as his manager. He possesses both sound principles and a wicked work ethic. He was reliable and never said, “that’s not my job.” He’s the kind of guy you want on your side.

There are many reasons to miss James but here’s what I will most (in no particular order):

  • Sense of humor: James has a dry sense of humor and has mastered the art of sarcasm (the good kind!). He also understands all internet memes and often corrected me on these. His depth of Penny Arcade and xkcd knowledge are unparalleled. I’ll miss all the laughter we shared during work weeks and meetings.
  • Passion for people: It was great seeing James grow as a manager. James and I first started testing Rypple for managing feedback loops a few years ago here at Mozilla. Neither of us were going to accept a yearly feedback loop as enough for personal development of our teams. He volunteered to experiment with new methods for managing teams and led by example. You could tell he actually cared about people and being a manager was more than just a job to him. I’ll miss working with him on leadership and management because I learned as much from him as he learned from me.
  • Solving problems, not symptoms: Regressions are always something to worry about in software. What made James special is he isn’t happy just fixing regressions faster or reducing them to a reasonable level. He strives to eradicate them and pushed us to move forward with continuous integration and deployment. James approached every problem with soul. His work will persist in what he leaves behind but I will miss how well he matched the work of today with the principles behind tomorrow.
  • Putting his heart into it: All in. That’s what comes to mind when I think about how James approached things. He’d be upset if things weren’t working well, if someone was unhappy with him or if a launch went poorly. He lived and breathed his work for Mozilla and I will miss his passion for the mission because it inspired me and everyone around him.

A Giant Code Impact

James discusses his favorite topic

On top of everything else, James was a code beast. He has quite a few repositories but when it comes to code, here’s what stands out:

bleach
An easy, HTML5, whitelisting HTML sanitizer. A powerful and widely used libary; gives webdevs granular control over HTML inputs.
pystatsd
A Python client for the statsd daemon. James pushed for us to use statsd and Graphite. Instead of complaining that we didn’t use them he got his hands dirty and made it work and convinced everyone why it was important.
django-waffle
A feature flipper for Django. It can define the conditions for which a flag should be active, and use it in a number of ways. This helped our first continuous projects focus on shipping features instead of arbitrary versions.
jingo-minify
A CSS/JS bundler and minifier for use with Jingo; connector to use Jinja2 templates with Django. This helped us minify assets for deployment.
commonware
A collection of small but useful tools for Django. Often used internally by our developers.
playdoh
James was a key contributor to playdoh, especially in the early days before it became an official library. He wrote a lot of its middleware and built one of our first sites using Django as its foundation. Today, playdoh is a popular choice for new projects at Mozilla (if written in Python).
kitsune and kuma
Last but not least, James was the lead engineer behind Mozilla’s customer support knowledgebase and developer documentation software. If I’m not mistaken he also chose the codenames.

Mad Street Cred

Nice kicks

James leaves behind two solid teams who build and support support.mozilla.org, input.mozilla.org and developer.mozilla.org. It’s important to note that his peers will miss him as much as I will. Here are some things they were thankful for:

On management:

… totally the best manager I’ve ever had. He understood the way that developers work (being a developer himself) and he was also such an awesome person! Also I think as far as my experience goes, he’s the first manager I’ve had that I felt completely comfortable being 100% open with.

broke every stereotype I had about managers. Great to come to Mozilla and have an awesome manager.

encouraged us to think about sane remote working practices

being a very nice interviewer

James always was encouraging and offered a tremendous amount of support to new developers. James was one of my favorite people who interviewed me when I applied to Mozilla. James’ demeanor, personality and attitude put me at ease. James truly displayed the Mozilla attitude that I love about working here.

As an engineering mentor:

continuous deployment/improving webdev’s deployment processes a LOT

He put freakin’ LOLcats in a code review! He’s very serious about quality code but he reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Being Webdev’s security ambassador with the Security team

Being Guardian of Code Cleanliness on all his projects

James was humble and helped webdev grow through through various scaling points.

As a person:

letting me crash on his couch twice in one summer with random people he’d never met

Starting the “Better Know A Webdev” blog series

Onward

James leaves Mozila with solid teams, solid code and better practices. He takes with him acquired wisdom and lasting friendships.

I think James will continue to build amazing things and be successful wherever he goes. If anybody out there doubts him, hopefully they can read this post.

James – I’ll miss you but this isn’t goodbye. I will still troll you on twitter and expect you to keep your libraries up to date!

See you soon. Cheers. <3

James approves!

At Peace

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My uncle Craig passed away this morning. He struggled for many years, bed-ridden after a series of issues. I am sad because I will miss him — at least the version of him I knew before he got really sick.

I’ll admit it was hard to watch him suffer, and his death brings a kind of closure and peace. I’m sure some of you understand the feeling. The last time I saw him, I sat next to him and said, “Don’t be scared, Craig. You will see your dad soon and he’ll take care of you. We are all here with you.”

I don’t know if he could hear me or understand me, but I already said goodbye. This morning I was sad but mostly for my mom and grandma, who lost a brother or son. I told my Mom she was a good sister to him, and took care of Craig through the worst parts. It was hard work — years of hard work — and all because she loved him and hoped to make him a little more comfortable.

As I usually do during these times, I read Thanatopsis today. The last part explains death better than most:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

I hope Craig went in peace, as if laying down to pleasant dreams. He had a good soul. Rest well, uncle.

Lucky One

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I was never a fan of first dates. The nervous tension was always palpable and I never had much of an appetite. Some of them went fine, some were terribly bad. I started to lose hope that I’d find the right person. The odds seemed against me after many failed attempts.

Jaime and Michael
I met Jaime online and she sounded fine on the phone. Sane, independent, smart, sense of humor. She even grew up in Hawaii like I did and was in vet school.

This girl is different, I thought.

For a first date, we did fairly well. Her roommates spied on me picking her up and her friend jokingly said to have her home by midnight. I didn’t oblige.

We didn’t eat much and I stared at the table a little too often. We went to American Dream Pizza and had gelato at Francesco’s on the second floor. I didn’t even finish my gelato.

For a night cap she showed me all of the animals at the vet school she had told me about on the phone. I introduced her to my cats and gave her a ride home. My face hurt the next day from smiling.

She moved in a few months later. Mostly, it was driven by necessity. This way I could feed her and comfort her while she went through the hardest part of vet school: surgery rotations. Until then I had never seen someone work a 36-hour shift. She complained, but not much. She just kept working hard.

Rio and Maia sleepingGetting the cats to get along was an interesting problem. I remember Maia and the boys almost killing each other when they were introduced. It turned into a weird feline love triangle, and they became family. Things seemed to have a way of working out.

Then, we decided to get a dog. The first day we had Scout was when I knew Jaime would make a great mother. I also knew I’d marry her by that point. She was a DvM. now, which was not easy. She passed her boards on the first try and was ready to start her career. Jaime was busy, but she still had time to take Scout to training classes and teach her a ton of tricks.

Soooo tiredWe moved to Portland eventually. Jaime worked at the VA for a while and we lived in west Portland. A year later, after our lease was up, we were off to California.

Jaime agreed to move to California knowing she had no job. We found a place at the last minute in Mountain View thanks to a friend and she started looking for work. She turned down a crappy offer only to walk into a good job less than a month later. She learned quickly and became a leader on her team. I was proud, but not surprised. Not at all.

Oh yeahI asked Jaime to marry me on February 13th the next year. I was worried because it was close to being cliche, so I made sure to avoid the 14th. Her family was there and I proposed to her on the coast of the Pacific on Land’s End. “Jaime, I have a question for you,” I said. At first she thought I had to use the bathroom, but she was shocked when she realized what was happening. We cried a little, hugging each other on the side of the trail. The wedding was even better, and we were happy.

Things went well for a while. One year, in spring, my grandfather passed away. When I got home, Jaime told me, crying, that Maia was also sick. I didn’t have to ask why she was upset.

Maia DozingJaime knew what had to be done, and she took responsibility for Maia’s life. The next day, we went in to the vet and put Maia to sleep. Jaime softly said goodbye, and I watched Maia die in her arms. Jaime was so strong. My heart was tired when I went to sleep that night.

And then, we got another dog. This one was tiny, shy and relaxed as a puppy. I’m not really sure what happened, but Junebug turned into a rascally poodle with an unhealthy obsession for socks, sunbathing and Greenies. Jaime took the time to take Junebug to classes and teach her tricks as well.

Jaime and JunebugThe years flew by. We found a new home for Rio and Junior and tried to start a family. One day, we found out she was pregnant.

Jaime was overjoyed. She read all the books and scoured websites. She wanted to be prepared, eat right, and take care of herself and the baby. As always, she looked at it as an opportunity to learn.

Today, she is around two months away from being a mother. I find myself in awe of Jaime. She has remained patient, graceful and loving even with her big belly, swollen feet and sore hands. She still goes to work and does yoga. Without hesitation, she assembled a beautiful baby room. I helped, but only a little.

I think about the journey we are on. There are so many memories, but so much still to come: all the firsts, wonderful discoveries, tough times, lack of sleep and those hard nights as parents. I am oddly at ease with the whole thing. I am not scared. I know Jaime is my partner, and I know she will be strong. It gives me confidence. I am lucky.

New set of shoes for a special baby girl

I wonder: will I ever be able to adequately tell our daughter how I feel about Jaime? Will I be able to describe how much I love her, and how rare it is to know someone like her? Will I do her story justice?

I will do my best — through actions and words alike. I am excited to be a father, teacher and friend to our little girl. But what I’m most excited about, above all else, is that my daughter will have Jaime for a mom.

Because, baby girl, your mom is special.

Princess

Aggression doesn’t solve problems

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I’m a bit worried about energy. There’s a karmic quality to what’s going on around us, and I want folks to think about it.

Conan, in his farewell off of NBC, said:

“All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

When my grandfather passed away, I clung to this. He was a quiet, unassuming, hardworking Chinese man brought up through some tough times. But he was never a cynic.

I think he had a lot of reasons to lose faith in people in the world around him. World War II, internment camps, segregation, great depression, Vietnam war… the list goes on. I believe we have pretty good lives compared to what he went through. Relatively, we have a lot of positives out there to write about.

So when it comes to net energy exchange, I don’t want to see what amounts to a few assholes trying to push people’s buttons and troll turn us into cynics. To live that way — to perpetuate that mindset — is counter-productive at best, self destructive at worst.

Because of karma, entropy, net energy, whatever — I personally don’t believe in aggression against aggression as a winning strategy. I find a lot of the language online to be rather aggressive, particularly toward competing viewpoints. This does everyone a disservice and drains energy from you, the other person, and people who reads this content.

And to what end? Do people become so drained that they quit? Is it about catharsis? Are people so shocked and awed at someone’s outrage that they change their mentality? When is the last time you yelled so loud that everyone just up and changed?

Never.

I think there are positive aspects to participation, and I agree with embracing what we feel and speaking up — but I don’t think the angry, rage-against-the-machine approach works for the disaffected. I liken this dichotomy to positive reinforcement vs. punishment.

The key there is it’s not either-or. You need both. In this give and take of energy I don’t believe you can have all the punitive language, the call-to-arms and outrage without the positives getting equal airtime. It’s totally out of balance.

Likewise, as people, I think the material and behavior we contribute to our communities needs balance. If all we’re doing is smacking down people who make mistakes and repeatedly punishing them, well, that has been proven to fail time and again in just about every facet of human society: drugs, prison, childhood development, racism, etc.

Pressure, positivity and time are what changes people. Things like learning, understanding, forgiveness, training and awareness. And not just in small doses – in large, consistent doses. I believe this. So did MLK:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

And here’s the thing: it sucks. People can be assholes; they don’t like to change and they cling to their beliefs. I have a lot of pity for any person who hinges their happiness on how well they can change the people around them.

But remember: not everyone is impossible. Not everyone is against you. Being a cynic is not going to move us ahead.

Codes of conduct, honor, etc. — they have their place and a balance in net energy is what they strive to achieve. A landslide of negativity and churn does not march us towards that vision — it sends us in the opposite direction towards something nobody wants to be a part of.

I’m walking the other way.

“Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Feedback will make or break you

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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Ignoring feedback is a lot like telling lies, except you’re lying to yourself. Once you fib, you inevitably have to make more stuff up to cover for what you already made up — and soon you have an entire house of cards on your hands. When a breeze comes along, it all falls apart. The reality we build for ourselves masks our flaws so we don’t have to confront them. The only problem? Eventually, everybody will know it except you.

Don’t put yourself there. It usually culminates in embarrassment, loneliness, depression and rejection. It takes months, years to dig yourself out of it. Consider that criticism is like pain. Would you ignore an infection? Would you just let it go and convince yourself that you’re totally healthy? Would you risk your physical health in order to support your denial? I hope not.

Why would you do that to your mind?

How do we magically ignore feedback in practice? I’m sure you have better examples, but I’ll give it a shot. Here are some common tactics we use to dismiss feedback:

  • Criticizing tone. If you’re criticizing word choice or how they said it you are deflecting useful feedback. It’s popular in politics for a reason: it’s easy and effective.
  • Dismissal by association. This is similar to “ad hominem” in Graham’s how to disagree. As a knee-jerk reaction you may associate someone’s opinion with their rank, group, background, etc. The next logical step is something along the lines of, “of course they think that, they are just a designer.” This is a mistake. Feedback from orthogonal groups is even more valuable because they see you from a different perspective. Don’t dismiss feedback because someone is not on your team or because you out-rank them. That type of feedback, if ignored, will turn into grapevine chatter and slowly come back to you.
  • Making it about feelings. When someone gives you feedback it’s a very personal thing. However, if your response makes it personal when it doesn’t have to be, you’ve got a problem. Spending all your energy on how you feel about the feedback can prevent you from focusing on what caused the feedback. I think it’s great to let someone know how you feel, but do it carefully. It could shut down future feedback from that person and make you unapproachable. It’s the difference between, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way — I feel bad about that and I’ll see what I can do,” and, “I really don’t appreciate what you said and it makes me feel terrible.” If your response is aimed at guilt-tripping the other person, you’re building a nice little wall around yourself and they’ll think twice about being honest with you in the future.
  • Constructing amazing excuses. Just stop with excuses. John Wooden said, “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” I don’t reasonably expect someone to never whine or complain, but excuses shift blame and make things not your problem. Chances are that if someone comes to you with feedback, you had something to do with it. I’m sure there are many reasons why the stars aligned and caused xyz, abc to happen — nobody gives a shit. Take responsibility and figure it out. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with it, ask yourself what you can do to help. Send them to the right person, or relay that feedback if necessary. Making excuses is clearly making sure it’s not your fault and taking responsibility for a solution isn’t even admitting fault. The key to remember: only one of those is remembered, and only one of those ends in solutions. If you want to be forgotten, keep on making those excuses.
  • Pulling rank. The “because daddy said so” approach to handling feedback is fairly common. Using rank to settle arguments or avoid confrontation is a slippery slope. If you’re a leader, it’s a good way to sabotage yourself. Your team will not work hard to fulfill your vision just because it’s your vision — you need to make it theirs by inspiring them. Ignoring feedback because of rank or authority says, “I’m too important to listen to that and what you said doesn’t matter.” You better have some credentials or trust to pull it off. If not, good luck with that, bossman.

Once you stop putting up your walls, you have to take some steps forward. Just like dieting, it’s not about eliminating the junk food — you have to exercise and eat good food too. Every once in a while you’ll slip, but for the most part you want balance and stability in how you approach feedback:

  • Fight like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong. John Lilly reminded me multiple times to do this, so let’s call it a Lillyism. It means moxie and listening don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Have guts, resolve and fight hard — but always, always listen and remember you may be wrong.
  • Get a second opinion. Phone a friend, ask your significant other, ping a coworker you trust. “Am I being defensive, or is this totally nuts?” is a decent question to ask about feedback you get that you don’t agree with. I know my wife is happy to tell me if I acted like a goofball and should apologize — and hopefully you’ve got people in your life who would do the same for you. Get help from them; you don’t have to process feedback alone.
  • Get counsel from your enemies. If you want to truly grow, you should know what your worst critic says about you. The best way to do this is ask them. I’ve seen folks avoid getting feedback from people that may not agree or even like them. This is just about the stupidest thing you could do. Avoiding feedback from people because it may not be good is self-defeating. Don’t avoid it, seek it out. Show them that you care to ask and listen — you’ll be surprised at what an impact they can have on your career.
  • Actively ignore things. You’ll get some noise in feedback. Just make sure what you ignore is actively ignored. You don’t have to heed everything people say — but you should listen. Make conscious decisions on what you’re not acting on as a result of feedback. And if you’re worried about the reaction, talk to the person who gave it to you and say, “this is my plan, and I don’t have time to do ____ but I will get to that later.”
  • Say thank you. Saying thanks for the feedback is just the right thing to do. Make an effort to thank people who helped you with their honesty — do what you can to make sure they do it again. People who give you feedback care about you enough to disagree with you and tell you the truth about yourself. Embrace them and value them. Let them know how important it is to you.
  • Ask questions. Your critics are great sounding boards. When you come up with actionable items from your huge list of feedback, ask them if your plan makes sense and whether it’ll address their concerns. This can open up opportunities for collaboration, discussion and at the very least lets them know you’re working on it and you’re listening. In case you didn’t understand feedback, you should do this as well — sometimes it takes effort to get down to the root cause.

Overall, how you handle feedback — and if you pay attention to it all — can define who you become. It all starts with you.

Do you have the courage to take criticism, process it and improve? Most people want to work with someone who answers yes.

Thanks to @lonnen for his feedback on this post!