This is real life

One thing the online gurus don’t talk about is “real life”.

In some ways I’m guilty of this too. I talk about launching products, building ideal routines, and “achieving the dream”.

But the truth is… real life is messy.

A lot of us like our online personas, because they’re clean. We can hide all of our mess behind smiling avatars, stylized Instagram shots, and clever status updates.

Let’s be honest: we’re not perfect Internet rock stars. Each of us have a personal reality with some “real life stuff” in it: kids who wake us up at 3am, a family member who gets sick, bills that need to get paid, feeling down and lonely on a Saturday night, a messy house that we’d never share on Instagram…

Talking about Instagram, check out this picture, taken by my daughter:

Justin Jackson: real life parenting, this is funny

It’s me, in my bathrobe, eating cereal, with my son on my shoulders (drumming on my head). It’s funny to me now, but at the time, that was a hard morning. My kids got up early – I was tired. I’m wearing my dumpy bathrobe, trying to eat my cereal in peace, when my 4 year old climbs me like a tree. I’m too tired to ask him to get down. He starts singing and drumming; he’s so happy to up there, I might as well just finish my cereal.

You see, I can pretend to be cool on the Internet, but in real life I’m just a dad in a bathrobe.

And the truth is, we all have “stuff” like this. There’s real circumstances in our lives, and those circumstances affect us. This is real life, and it’s good to talk about it.

So let’s talk about it.

First: everyone on the Internet is a real human being, just like you.

Even though some people seem perfect and impossibly cool… trust me, we ALL have real human stuff we’re dealing with. And all those pictures you see of gurus laying in hammocks on a tropical beach? Sure those pictures are real (probably), but that’s not their real life. Everyone has a real life and an illusion of their life that they show online.

BTW: that photo of me above isn’t even “real”. I put filters on it in Instagram. I blurred out some of the mess around me. It’s an illusion.

Second: the relationships you’ve built are really the best thing you have.

“The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated.”
– Christine Carter, Ph.D., Happiness is being socially connected

You have a loving spouse? Cherish that relationship. Invest in it. Be a good lover.

Do you have kids? Man, parenting is hard. But those kids are amazing little human beings. They need your attention, your direction and your love. You’re responsible for them; take that responsibility seriously.

And friends: if you have good friends, that you get to hang out with regularly, that’s like gold. Seriously: I know we all want to build great products, have popular blogs, and make an impact in our industry… but hanging out and laughing with friends is actually better. Don’t forget that.

Third: in terms of building and launching our own projects, there’s a balance here.

On one hand we have to accept that our reality will  restrict what we can do. For example: I’ve had the flu for the last 2 weeks; all I could do was rest in bed, and wait for it to pass. That’s life. If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, your reality’s going to be different than a single 22 year-old. Each of us have unique circumstances that will affect what we can work on, and when. This was especially true for me when it came to writing a book: I decided that a full 300 page book wouldn’t be possible (with 4 kids and a day job), so I wrote a shorter guide instead.

On the other hand, we have to figure out ways to appropriately rise above our circumstances: to get outside our comfort zones; to claw, climb, and push ourselves to where we want to be. Doing something out of the ordinary does takes some grit and some sacrifice. Here’s what this means for me, personally: I’m not going to miss my daughter’s Christmas pageant, but I am going to wake up really early on a Sunday to write a blog post.

Ultimately, our relationships are way more important than any business we’re going to create. Let’s not sacrifice our friendships on our journey to build and create cool stuff.

Fourth: we can’t do this alone.

If we’re going to do extraordinary things, we’re going to need support. The support I get from folks I’ve met on the internet is helpful: a Skype session, chatting in the JFDI Campfire room, or a personal email goes a long way.

But, I’ve found my best support comes from my friends here in my hometown of Vernon. When it comes to “real life stuff” nothing beats local support. You need friends that can actually show up at your doorstep and give you a helping hand, encouragement, and a listening ear.

Finally: let’s talk about depression.

If you’re depressed, or even if you’re just feeling down, please get help from a professional therapist. If you’re struggling with other issues (relationships, self-identity, addiction) getting regular counselling will help. Take care of your health first!


Was this helpful for you? If you want to chat, reach out on Twitter, or join my mailing list.

Cheers,
Justin Jackson

PS: I originally sent this email to my newsletter list, and had some really great conversations with the people who replied. If you’d like to be part of my list, sign-up below:

How remote work changed my life

Remote work increases both the quality of work and job satisfaction.

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH on the internet) and Jason Fried have a new book: Remote: Office Not Required. This post is a hybrid: it’s a book review, but it’s also personal. I’m going to describe how working remotely (this past year) has affected me personally.

Remote - jacket image

Interruptions

Remote’s opening essay re-hashes Jason Fried’s popular TED talk: Why work doesn’t happen at workThe worst part about being in an office, says Fried, is the amount of interruptions:

Offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor — it chops your day into tiny bits.

When I interviewed DHH earlier this year, he talked about the idea of “getting into a zone” while working. He described it as a highly focused, productive state of mind. And then he added another adjective: pleasurable. I love that description. Think about the last time you truly enjoyed your work. I felt like this last Saturday: I was able to sit down, late at night, and write about 500 words in an hour. In that hour I didn’t think about anything else: I didn’t check Twitter, email, or take breaks. I was just engrossed in my work; and it truly was pleasurable.

Jason and David make a great point about being “handcuffed” to the office and its interruptions. The remote worker, on the other hand, has the freedom to move away from distractions. Is the TV on? Go to a different room. Coffee shop is too loud? Go home to a quiet room.

Commuting hell

The biggest single improvement to my life this past year was this: instead of getting in my car and driving 1 hour from my suburb to downtown Edmonton, I jump on my bike and pedal to downtown Vernon in just 10 minutes.

Commuting every day was my biggest source of stress. Jason and David describe the commute as “soul sucking” and I agree. Sitting in a car, stuck on the freeway, you can literally feel the life being sucked out of you. I’ve never met a person who likes sitting in traffic.

It’s a bit surprising to see car affectionados like Jason and DHH criticize driving (Jason’s shared his fondness for luxury cars in interviews, and DHH drives race cars for fun). But the cost of commuting has been carefully researched:

the verdict is in: long commutes make you fat, stressed, and miserable. Even short commutes stab at your happiness.

My commute was about 2 hours a day. That’s me spending 10 hours a week, just sitting my car. That’s 480 hours per year. What a waste. Now I don’t have to wake up at 5am, before my kids are up, and I’m easily home in time for dinner most days. I feel like I’ve got a huge part of my life back.

We live in the future

Technology companies sometimes surprise me: we pride ourselves on using the latest gadgets, the latest software, the latest coding practices, and the latest development methodologies. And yet so many of these technology companies won’t trust this same technology to enable remote work.

Here’s our toolkit: Campfire (it’s like a digital water cooler), GoToMeeting (video conferencing meetings, and screen sharing), Google Docs (document collaboration and editing), Sprint.ly (task management for software companies), and email.

What I love about using technology for work is it clears away a lot of the old office abstractions, and allows me to work more efficiently. The most distracting thing in an office isn’t Facebook – it’s being angry and stressed out from the hour commute you just finished.

Workin’ 9-5

Dolly Parton was right: 9-5 is a crazy way to make a living. Jason and David point out two reasons why it’s better to work flexible hours:

  1. It helps you accommodate an individual’s family situation (need to pick the kids up from school?)
  2. It allows creative people to work when they’re “in the zone” (are you a morning person, or a night owl?)

The other day we had a crazy morning in the Jackson home. We had a hard time getting the kids ready for school and out the door, and there were a few meltdowns. By the time the dust settled I was in the office at 10am. Knowing that I could start at 10am, and finish at 6pm, relieved a ton of stress.

Vernon is my city

Remote makes a bold prediction about the “end of city monopoly”:

The luxury privilege of the next twenty years will be to leave the city. Not as its leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants.

Anyone who has a family knows the pain of being a “leashed servant in a suburb.” When I was in Edmonton, I longed to be within biking distance of downtown. But like any growing, affluent city (oil money), buying a family home within biking distance carried a serious price tag. I’m lucky to make a good salary, but there’s no way I could afford $500k-$700k on a home.

Vernon, on the other hand, is a small city of 30-40,000 people. I was able to buy a medium sized 3 bedroom home for well under $400k. I’m close to downtown, 20 minutes from the ski resort, and 10 minutes to great beaches. When you combine the opportunity to work remotely, with the great lifestyle somewhere like Vernon offers, it becomes a great place to live.

If you love surfing, why are you still trapped in a concrete jungle and not living near the beach? – Jason Fried and DHH

Last year, I snowboarded 21 days. That’s not a lot for a Vernon local (I’m hoping to increase that this year), but that’s the most I’ve ever ridden in my life. My 3 & 4 year-olds learned to ski last year. Working remotely has allowed us to pursue recreation now, while I’m still in my 30’s, instead of waiting until my 70’s when I (might?) retire.

Go where the talent is

Software companies are desperate for talent; and yet we keep moving our companies to San Francisco where there’s an engineering shortage (and insane salaries). What gives?

37signals is the company most people point to when they talk about success & profits in our industry, and yet they don’t have a single employee in Silicon Valley.

Amy Hoy echoes my thoughts perfectly:

Some of us not only don’t need to move to SF, we’d gnaw off our own legs before doing so.

Surprise, surprise: there’s talented people in places besides San Francisco.

Remote work, in an office

Remote work doesn’t have to happen in a coffee shop, or at home (surrounded by screaming kids). I mentioned previously that I work from a small rented office in downtown Vernon. It’s a private office, and it costs $200/month. The cheapest I could find in Edmonton was $550/month.

The book describes IBM’s savings on commercial space. They sold 58 million square feet for a profit of $1.9 billion. Since downsizing the amount of space they need, they’ve saved $100 million a year.

It’s not all or nothing, Jason and David say:

Embracing remote work doesn’t mean you can’t have an office, just that it’s not required. Remote work is about setting your team free to be the best it can be, wherever that might be.

Trade-offs

It’s refreshing to have the boys at 37signals talk about the downsides to remote work. It brings a sense of balance, and realism, to the book. They mention a few very real negatives to working outside of the corporate office:

  1. Lack of social interaction, and face-to-face mentoring you get in an office
  2. Lack of structure, and the responsibility of managing your own time
  3. The difficulty in setting boundaries – especially when working from home where there’s the demands of other family members

Facing the “remote work is crazy” arguments

One of the biggest arguments that people make against remote work is that the best ideas come from meeting in person; sitting around and spit-balling ideas.

Here’s the thing: have you looked at your company’s backlog lately? Often, the challenge isn’t coming up with great ideas — it’s finishing the work on the on ideas you’ve already committed to. In this way, having frequent brainstorms is less helpful. It’s frustrating, because your idea backlog gets bigger and bigger. You get the rush of coming up with something new, but you don’t finish the slog of grinding out what’s already in front of you.

I like how Jason and David put it:

Our attitude is, we need a clean plate before going up for seconds.

The second argument that managers often levy, is that when they’re watching their employees (in the office) they know they’re working. This excuse is laughable: you don’t get a sense of what someone’s accomplished by gauging the number of hours they’ve stared at a screen. You can only judge productivity from what’s actually been produced. 

There’s an even bigger problem here: who does good work when someone’s staring over their shoulder?

If you feel the need to constantly monitor an employee’s productivity, you’ve probably hired the wrong person. No sense in paying someone to do some work — and then have to watch them do it.

Jason and David address other common arguments specifically in the book: jealousy, security, answering the phone, home distractions, needing an answer ASAP, and company culture all get their own essays.

Remote work recommendations

There’s some great, practical tips for companies looking to set-up remote working environments:

  • Security: use hard drive encryption, secure logins, and device passwords.
  • The 4 hour overlap: make sure that all your workers have 4 hours of overlap with part of the team.
  • Use shared screens: tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, Join.me and screencasting make this possible.
  • Work transparently: make all your work, discussions and decisions available to everyone at the company.
  • Have a virtual water cooler: I’ve mentioned this previously. Campfire is a great tool that allows remote employees to hang out, and “play”.
  • Start slow: start by letting local workers work “remote” for a few days a week. Make sure you try it for 3 months (give it a good shot). Also: don’t just try it with 1-2 employees, try it with the whole team.
  • Get your remote employees a good desk and chair
  • Provide a gym credit so people can exercise
  • When hiring out of country: “establish a local office or hire people as contractors.”
  • Pay everyone equally: don’t pay employees who live in cheaper locales less money.

There’s a ton more tips in the book. As a remote worker, they all resonated with me.

Built-in redundancy

I love their essay called “Disaster ready”:

Forcing everyone into the office every day is an organizational single point of failure.

A few weeks ago, the central office in Edmonton had a boiler problem that filled the building with smoke. Everyone had to evacuate; but not me. I was able to keep working, and answer emails and phone calls as they came in.

This is also true for sickness that might sweep an office: a few months ago when everyone had this nasty virus that was going around, I was safely quarantined, 800 km away.

Human interaction

I’m an extrovert: I get energized by being around people. People are surprised when I tell them that I spend most of my work hours, alone, in my office. “Don’t you get lonely?”

I would be lonely if that’s all I did: but I’ve been proactive about building good social networks around me. I host a developers lunch every second week. The last Thursday of every month is Geek Beers. I try to go for coffee 2-3 times a week. I also host a podcast where I get to talk to people around the world.

Who should read this book?

My guess is that most employees would jump at the chance to work remotely, if the opportunity was given to them. You don’t need to convince them.

It’s bosses that need the convincing. They’re the target that I hope read this book. David and Jason do a good job of describing how remote work can help a company, and its people, thrive. They show that it’s not just “for 37signals” – it can work beautifully at any company, regardless of size.

The employees are already on board; the question is if more teams will offer remote work as an option. I’m hoping Remote: Office Not Required changes that.

You can order the book here.

The downward spiral

I’m not sure if you can relate to this:

I was just listening to an interview with a guest who’s been really successful at launching products. At first it was exhilarating: “Wow! This guy’s story is amazing! Look what he’s accomplished!”

And then I got kind of depressed.

I started comparing myself to him: he’s younger than me, he’s accomplished more in a year than I have in 5, and his first product has done way better than mine. Looking at his success, I started to feel hopeless; like the race is already over, even though I’ve just left the starting line.

Do you ever feel like that?

I think the truth is: we all slip into this kind of negative thinking from time to time. What should we do with these thoughts?

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Realize this could be a symptom of other things. For example, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days. I’m way more self-critical when I’m tired. First step: take a nap.
  2. There’s a time to learn from your heroes. But you also have to realize that their story is different from yours. Don’t dwell on comparisons. You are your own person, with your own story. The process is going to look different for you and that’s ok.
  3. Focus on the people you want to help. This is the key. The most important step. When we’re dwelling in self-pity we lose sight of the purpose behind building and launching products: helping other people with their pain.
  4. Practice your craft. Your craft is your delivery mechanism: it’s how you’re going to deliver help to the people that need it. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a coder, code. If you’re a designer, design.
  5. Hang out regularly with other people who are on the same path as you. Share your struggles. Empathize with each other. Listen. Offer (and receive) encouragement. Talk it out.

We’re self-critical when we put too much pressure on ourselves. Relax: we don’t get any closer to our goals by stressing out. Stress is a mess. Take a deep breath. Close your computer. Go watch a movie. Allow yourself to de-pressurize. Have a good sleep.

When you wake up: remember to enjoy your journey. Creating things for other people can be a great joy. Let’s enjoy it.

Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

PS: I originally wrote this for my mailing list. You can sign-up here.

The principle that changed my life

On Okinawa Island there are a lot of people over the age of 100; 3x more than in the United States. Many have wondered: how do Okinawans maintain such a high standard of health?

Researchers have traced their longevity to a Confucian practice calledhara hachi bu. Roughly translated it means: “eat until you are 80% full.”

This means Okinawans eat only about 1,800 calories a day. The result? Their rates of cancer, heart disease, and dimentia are much lower than the western world. [Source 1] [Source 2]


However, this isn’t an article about restricting your calories (although, based on the evidence, that might be a good idea).

I’ve been experimenting with hara hachi bu beyond dieting. I’m far from a master, but I wanted to share what I’ve experienced so far.


As Westerners, we believe in pushing up against the limits, and going over them: we’re pedal to the metal, giving 110%, and our amps go to 11. We max ourselves out in every facet of our lives: our finances, our relationships, our health, and our careers.


I love to work. For years, I would go to the office in the morning, and spend every ounce of creative energy that I had. I gave it all until I had nothing left. If I had extra time, I would pick up a new project. Over the years I became responsible for more and more things. I was consistently promoted, until I became the youngest Regional Director in the country.

When I wasn’t at work, I filled my time with side-projects: I volunteered on committees, I founded a business with some friends, and started working on my Masters Degree.

During this time I’d also gotten married, and we’d had our first child.

I loved the busyness. I was firing on all cylinders. Spinning all these plates in the air. The world was my oyster!

And it all worked fine until…

…I cracked.

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit. And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.


As I began the slow process of rebuilding, I decided I would start practicing a form of mental hara hachi bu at work. I became conscious of the amount of energy I spent at the office. I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.

There’s not really a good way of describing how I determine whether or not I’m at 80%. It’s a state of being mindful. I try not to overstimulate my brain: I pick 2-3 big things to accomplish a day. After that, I focus on little things that don’t require as much energy.

The benefits have been huge.

First, and most importantly, I have space for crisis. If something unexpected and urgent comes in, I have the mental wherewithal to deal with it.

Second, I do better work. Instead of being overstimulated, my mind is more focused. By acknowledging my limits, I spend my resources more wisely.

Third, I’m in it for the long haul. I’m no longer at constant risk of burnout.


Like I said, I’m still not a master, but I’m trying to apply the “80% full” metaphor to other areas of my life: finances, social commitments, and the amount of media I consume.

Do you think hara hachi bu could work for you? Have you tried something similar?

You can reach me on Twitter here: @mijustin or 

Photo credit: Michael Himbault

Stop networking at events

I was going to call this post “How to network with human beings”. But I don’t like that word (and I’m guessing you don’t either). Networking sounds sleazy and self-serving.

I was also thinking about calling this post “How to meet famous people”. I’ve met some semi-famous folks in the tech world; but writing a post about how to do that is just silly. Truthfully, getting your photo with a well-known personality is more about bragging rights than making a meaningful connection.

What you really want to do is meet interesting people and build relationships with them

Too often, we think about networking  in terms of “what we can get”: we network so we can improve our employability, so we can move up the ladder, or to fill our emotional needs.

These events aren’t for “networking”: they’re to make friends. – Tim Smith

Here’s what you should focus on: building relationships with interesting people. Find people you can collaborate with, people you can learn from, people you can form friendships with and people you might want to work with in the future.

It starts with attitude (a story about me pouting in a corner)

When I was in my early 20’s, I attended a small conference (30-50 people). When I arrived, I felt shy. I watched the outgoing people talk and joke, and generally not notice me. I went into classic social victim mode: this is where you locate the nearest bowl of chips, sit down, and pout about how nobody likes you.

Sitting in the corner, eating my chips, I had a realization: “I’m being so selfish: I’m expecting all these people to cater to my emotional need for belonging.” This changed my thinking: when you’re in a social situation you need to focus on what you can give to others, instead of what you want from them.

How to be a social leader

Maybe I’m more selfish than most, but I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not about me, it’s about others. This mental model transforms me from a victim to a social leader.

Here’s what I started doing: instead of hoping someone would approach me, I approached people and introduced myself. Instead of talking, I listened. Instead of excluding, I included. Instead of guarding my emotions and appearing stuck up, I tried to be open and friendly. If someone seemed to genuinely not want my company I just moved on to the next person.

Sometimes you’re a roamer, sometimes you’re an anchor

I lean towards extroversion: I could go to an event and meet 200 different people, and by the end of the night I would be more energized than when I arrived. This makes me disposed towards roaming: jumping from group to group, conversation to conversation, person to person.

Roaming is fine; it’s the social equivalent of speed dating. You meet a lot of people, in a short period of time. But as you develop your social leadership skills, you’ll recognize situations where it’s best to stay put (to be an anchor). This normally occurs at events where most of the folks don’t know each other, and there isn’t much conversation or activity in the room.

In these situations, I try to be an early initiator, anchor myself in one place, and gradually include more and more people in our conversation. This has a number of effects:

  1. People feel cared for, because you’re not trying to move on (and you’re including them in a bigger group of people).
  2. You become the de facto leader of the group. You’re the one people are looking to to keep the conversation going, to ask interesting questions, and engage the group.
  3. When others notice that there is a “bigger” group of 2-3 people to join, and that there is an inclusive leader, they’ll be more likely to join.

One skill to get you started: asking good questions

You want to be able to ask good questions, and then follow-up with more relevant questions. Asking questions does people a great service: they don’t have to worry about what to talk about – you’re providing the direction.

Don’t be afraid to ask general questions! Asking general questions is a good strategy because they lead to deeper questions. Here’s an example from a real conversation I had at a conference:

“Where are you from?” “Las Vegas.”
“No way! I was just in Vegas. I heard you can ski there, is that true?” “Yes, actually I skied there quite a bit this year. We have a small hill just outside of town.”
“How long have you been skiing?” “Since high school. I grew up in Utah, so we had a lot of good local places to ski.”
“I’ve been wanting to snowboard at Park City, Utah. Have you been? What’s it like?” It’s amazing! If you get a chance, you should definitely go.

For programmers and designers a good question could be: “Do you have any side-projects that you’re working on?” Business folks and managers might respond to: “What opportunities are you seeing in your industry?”

Asking good questions (and then being able to follow-up with other, relevant questions) is a skill that requires practice. It will feel awkward at first, but as you continue to practice, you will get better and better at it. Soon, it starts to feel like second nature.

Want to hear more?

I regularly send my email list tips like this.

Pssst: A closing thought

People that meet me at events, have heard me speak, or listen to my podcast sometimes get the impression that I’m socially confident all the time.

But I’m just like you. I get nervous, I get shy, I feel awkward. I try things, and fall on my face. I say embarrassing things, and regret it later. Sometimes I go to an event and nothing clicks.

If I’m doing anything “special” it’s this: I keep actively trying to improve the way I interact with others. I remind myself that “it’s not about me” and force myself to focus on the other people I meet. I practice, practice, practice asking good questions (I honestly have fake conversations with myself in the car).

I’d like to help you with this too. Leave a comment below, or send me a tweet at @mijustin about a struggle you’ve had with social events. I’d love to listen and help if I can.

That's me!Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin