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isn't quite ashamed enough to present

jr conlin's ink stained banana

:: Discovering My Special Purpose

So, last night (ok, early this morning) i had a dream that brought about an epiphany about myself. After about 50 years of feeling that i’m weirdly broken, i realized something kinda core about myself.

i really like helping people.

i get a significant dopamine rush out of helping someone who either doesn’t expect it or really needs it. Sometimes it’s little things, sometimes they’re bigger. Usually, it’s stuff that most folks won’t notice.

Mind you, one of my heroes is amazingly creative and productive, but he tends to build things for his own enjoyment. He’s quite legendary for crafting items with tremendous skill and keeping them in his personal museum. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, because it brings him great joy and fulfillment.

However, to me, it’s sort of an act of masturbation (and you can thank my subconscious for this one) his display room is kind of a Creativity Cum Box. If you’re not familiar with what that is, please do NOT look that up.

Yeah, i guess that explains why i’ve not been super interested in seeing his display (not like i’d ever have the chance, but still…)

He’s still my hero for the other things he’s done and continues to do for education and communications. In some small respect, he’s even helped me figure out myself, and i’m thankful for that.

Guess i’d just rather get my joy on other people rather than in a display case.

(wait, that sounds totally wrong…)

:: Defining Friendship

Sometimes i miss being a kid. There’s an overwhelming simplicity to social interactions when you’ve got a towel tied around your neck and a pocket full of army men. You find someone doing something neat, join in, and there’s an implicit understanding that “We’re friends now”.

Lucky little bastards.

Being several decades away from not getting reported to the police when hanging upside-down on the monkeybars, establishing a “friendship” isn’t quite the same. Frankly, i think i suck at it.

Allow me to set a baseline:
1) i’m strongly introverted. i may appear externally extroverted and will talk to anyone, but that’s more the product of having to survive in the DC area than any social skill.
2) Much like a sizable portion of the population i tend to deal with, i have poor social interaction skills. Everyone has areas they are blind to, i believe mine are around situational empathy. While i’m acutely aware of what i should have done, i’m not terribly good at what i should do right now. i’m also terrible at “subtle”. i tend to mask this through bad jokes.
3) i’m not embarrassed or ashamed of this facet of my personality, and actually like discussing it so that i can be better at social graces.

i also tend not to make friends. i have lots of acquaintances, dozens of colleagues, many folks i admire and respect, but only a handful of folks i consider “friends”. i strongly suspect that several of the people i consider friends have absolutely know knowledge of this fact, much like how i have no idea who may hold me in that category.

For me, i tend to approach a given social interaction from a purely neutral point of view. Since i’ve learned that people tend to be more negative toward those who do not act positive, i tend to be more toward “happy” than “emotionally distant”. If i am able to extract benefit from association, i will continue the relationship. (Benefit is a very general term, by the way, and is not simply something like financial or physical gain. Some folks i consider “friends” actually cost me more to maintain, but i feel i gain in other respects from their close association.) Once i consider you a friend, it takes two things to take you out of that category.

1. A malicious act of wanton intent (e.g. dropping live puppies into a meat grinder, stealing from defenseless individuals, senseless vandalism, etc.)
2. Lack of commonality (e.g. we no longer share elements of common interest.)

Obviously, most folks fall into the latter than the former and also why i’ve yet to add Hitler to my LinkedIn professional network.

i’m hoping that this is all pretty normal, but then again, i’m socially clueless, so there’s that. i’ll also note that while i had friends in school and in prior jobs, i’m not really friends with many of those folk now.

So, why all the effort? Well, i like to consider a friend to be someone who i can enjoy being with outside of just one or two contexts. For instance, there are several folks i enjoy working with in a professional context, but i’m not sure i’d feel comfortable calling them up on a Saturday and asking if they want to go catch a movie or grab a beer somewhere. Likewise, there aren’t a lot of folks i’d feel super comfortable calling up just to talk about crap that’s bothering me or just be a sounding board.

What makes things a bit odd is that most of the people i do consider friends live several hours (by darn near every mode of transit) away, so yeah, that “let’s go grab a beer” thing is a bit harder than you’d think. Fortunately, i’m able to at least use things like IRC, jabber, or other things to bother them as need be, provided we’re in complementary time zones.

i feel like i should be better at this, or maybe just a bit smarter.

Or maybe i just need to think about this less, toss a few army men in my pocket and find a set of monkeybars.

Mighty fine evening officer, can i help you?

:: Disnopia

Over the past week, i spent time at Walt Disney World. It was for a work meet-up. Granted, meet-ups like that are strange, since the purpose of those meetings is to ignore the wonderful outside with all the constant temptations, and listen to each other discuss efficient application design and product goals. It was a good meeting, but i think what it really did was help me understand why i am uncomfortable about Disney.

Mind you, large venues like that are honestly pretty darn good at handling the incredibly complex logistics required to deal with feeding, housing and tending a few battalions worth of humanity. This is not something that the local Motel 6 will handle well. i’m forever interested in the logistical angles of that sort of thing, and Disney World pretty much fits near the pinnacle of that. i’m pretty sure there’s maybe one other location that deals with as many faithful folks willing to walk in circles for miles, and i’m pretty sure that place doesn’t have ties to Star Wars and the Muppets, although the level of religious fervor is nearly the same.

Disney has sorta perfected the idea of operational “magic”. Much like typical magic, they rely heavily on misdirection and your general willingness to disbelieve the obvious answers. You’re not willing to believe that there’s a vast underground network of tunnels, workshops and support architecture that goes into making Chicken Little or Braer Rabbit pop up for a photo shoot from behind a “rock” or “tree”.

Thing is, if you’re willing to accept that, things get… well… lazy. You notice that while the Holiday Cheer soundtrack weaves one catchy hook into another, the whole loop lasts about 40 minutes. Likewise, you might be sitting at a themed restaurant watching a bunch of shorts and notice that after 50 minutes, things seem oddly familiar again. Disney, being the source of many childhood memories tends to horde them, and dole them out like a Junk Lady from Labyrinth. After all, they get to profit from your nostalgia. That level of repetition is because you’re not supposed to be staying put long enough to notice it, and certainly not pay attention to it.

Disney parks are like Vegas for kids. They’re about providing enough distraction on top of a thin veneer that you can escape into. They are fantasy in it’s most real form. A daydream in plaster and paint that knows you’re not going to poke at it.

Disney is about control and scripting, to provide everyone the exact, same experience, including you. It’s reliable entertainment in the way that a playground set is. People are willing to consider it “traditional”. They eat Turkey on Thanksgiving, shop at Target, and pile in the car and spend $65 a head to see the “Christmas Light Spectacular” at Disney Hollywood Studios. Just like everyone else. Mind you the display is basically the same thing you see in the daytime, just with tiny lights all over it, but it’s “Tradition” and so you do it. For them, it’s comforting.

i’m a bit different, i guess. i like nostalgia, sure, but i like to think those memories are mine. Jay Ward Productions may have sold Bullwinkle to Disney, but the way the horrible title puns set my preferences for humor are why i like watching re-runs of the Rocky & Bullwinkle show. That, and they don’t really feature stuff from my childhood.

:: Questionable Career Advice

Every year or so, i have a friendly meeting with my latest manager who inevitably asks the question i hate the most: “What is your career path?”

There’s lots of ways to ask that question, and you’ve probably heard a bunch of them. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, “How do you feel you can better yourself as an employee?”, etc. They’re all basically the same question. It’s a question asked by management to employees for any number of reasons. Usually, it’s because of some mandate to show “employee growth” as part of some retention initiative, or as a metric for managers to show their superiors that they’re doing a good job. Sometimes, it’s even asked as an honest query for personal or professional growth.

i’ll be frank. Over the past 30 years, i’ve never had a singular focus on an overreaching goal. i’ve never wanted to be “CTO of a Fortune 500 Company” or “Chief Architect of Foo” or whatever. Those positions, while bringing great acclaim and glory, tend to be bogged in politics and other crap that i would much rather avoid. The driving force of my personal career has always been: “Do what you can to make the world better” and on a lower level “Do your job better than you did six months ago”.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. Computers and the Computer industry are pretty new. Heck, most companies “pivot” half a dozen times in five years. We’re finally getting to the point where there are “mainstay” companies that are becoming entrenched, but the web is really only 20 years old and societies don’t really move that fast. i also prefer being in a support role. If others are the “Rock Stars” i’m perfectly fine being the bass player. The odds of being a “Rock Star” are pretty small. The odds or being good enough to play in great bands and make a more than comfortable living doing what you love are actually pretty high. Ok, that’s a crappy expansion of a crappy metaphor, but you get what i mean.

The problem is that sort of view flies in the face of decades of Tony Robbins style career guidance. If you’re not 40 and on the board of a fortune 500 company, you’re obviously a failure. Granted, the fact that there are about forty one million people in the US alone who are about your age, i’m pretty sure that the top 500 companies don’t have 82,000 people on each of their boards. In short, exceptional people are exceptional. Yeah, it’d be nice, but it takes a LOT more factors than just “hard work” and “focus” to get into a position like that.

Instead, i try to find somewhere to work that matches closely with my desired life goal. By the way, if your life goal is “Make shit-tons of cash and retire to a private island in the Pacific”, that’s fine too. It’s just not mine. If i’m going to be mostly doing support, i want to make sure that what i’m supporting does things i approve of. If it doesn’t i’ll go somewhere else. Yeah, i’m fully aware that my gender, race and career choice makes that exceptionally easy to do. That’s why i try not to have dirtbag motivations.

So, how do i answer the question i loathe? i still have no clear idea. Most companies have HR department provided “Career Tracts” or pay grade differentiates. Things like “these are the responsibilities outlined for a SE-III mark Alpha” or whatever grade is above what your current position is. They usually indicate what tic-boxes need be checked for you to move to a slightly better pigeon hole. Honestly, i’ll probably just select a few from that list and offer them as “Career Objectives”. Some of those might even be interesting to follow up on. In reality, though, i don’t really see myself radically changing my personal tact anytime soon.

i’m pretty fulfilled with how i’ve chosen to earn my keep.

As for the question, “How important is a bass player to a Rock Star”, i’ll offer this:

:: F*ck You, Brain.

i feel fortunate that i am reasonably mentally healthy. There’s a lot of people who actually have depression, bi-polar disorder, ADD and other conditions and those people have my respect.

That said, i can understand a tiny fraction of what they go through. i tend to be very hard on myself. i tend to favor criticism more than complements. This is normal, of course, and chances are exceptionally good you do the same thing. i know this because a few years ago when i felt i was at a very low point i wanted to understand what the hell was wrong with me. It was a pattern i found myself falling into and since i didn’t enjoy it, i wanted to know what i could do to solve the problem.

Turns out, little, since we as a species are pretty firmly hardwired for it. i found that at least for me, understanding what was going on did help. Later on, finding books like You Are Not So Smart really helped me understand even more of this sort of self inflicted crap.

Part of this is also my industry of choice. Long ago, i consigned myself to be a tradesman in the midst of artists. There are programmers that craft things of magic and joy. These are wonderful creations that improve life in this veil of tears immeasurably. Granted, those things often need to be maintained and supported. At times, bits need to be built out of things stronger than pixie dust and gossamer, and i take a bit of joy trying to make sure that folks don’t know that some of the “magic” is now rebar.

i’ll also admit that i’m not the best at what i do. Even after working a lifetime in the industry. There are others that i work with that make me look like an amateur. These are people i can greedily learn from, and i’m damn thankful of the opportunity, but it also means that in a culture that spotlights “Rock Stars” and “Ninjas”, i’ll be the guy near the back of the auditorium clapping.

All of this can be a bit… i don’t want to say depressing, but it’s certainly draining. i’ve had numerous, very dark thoughts, but generally can dismiss them. There are days where i feel reasonably good about myself and completely understand that in very short order, my mood will be completely reversed by something. i’ve learned that this swing happens in both directions, and frankly it’s best to simply not let the pendulum swing that hard in any direction.

Take, for instance, right now. At this time, i’m feeling very low. i was responsible for a bit of infrastructure. i drafted the design, implemented code, and got it working, and felt reasonably good about myself. Projects started relying on it. Outside groups started playing with it. There was a significant challenge, i needed a bit of help, and we met the challenge with some tweaking.

The code has since been rewritten by someone far younger than me and is, in many respects, far better than what i originally built. It’s lighter weight, more responsive and probably more maintainable than what i had built. i already see ways that it could be improved and expanded.

It’s also probably going to be a failure point because of things outside of my control, which may cause the projects that were relying on it to also fail. None of the breaking points are my fault, and i’ve noted what the problems are, how to address them, and what actions are available to all. When i dismiss fault, i am being very clear. The failure is due to a behavior in a system i did not code for nor did we clearly understand at the onset of the project. If this system is removed, the fault is also removed, however this system is required for it’s own reasons. It’s a bit like saying “Well, the crop harvest failed due to the dam break.”

Still, it’s damn hard for me to shake the “This is your fault, and you suck as a human being” mindset. The program was written in a language and construct i wasn’t fully familiar with. The younger engineer is, so that’s why the code is better after his attention. The failing system is one that i am also unfamiliar with, and the subsystem that is an issue came as a surprise to a good many folk. i view all of these as being “excuses”. My psyche demands that excuses don’t matter, only results. (Yes, i was brought up in a strict, military household, why do you ask?)

People talk about failure as a benefit. It’s how one learns. It’s inevitable, and constant, and what makes success so remarkable is that it’s uncommon enough to be remarkable. This does not make failure any less pleasant. Culturally, and personally, it’s a stigma. Feeling that way is irrational, but very common.

At this point, i’ll also think about the various other projects that i feel the need to accomplish, and the sorry state that they’re in, the 60+ articles moldering in my unread queue and a thousand other reasons i have to beat myself up. i should be accomplishing more. i’m not. i should be more creative. i’m not. “Nobody else knows how big a screw up you are” as Mr. Savage points out, but i am acutely aware of it.

Like i said at the top, there are folks out there with serious medical issues who are constantly struggling with far bigger demons than me. i admire every day that they succeed in beating those demons and they have every right to scoff at me and my personal pity party. If you’re one of those, i welcome your well earned derision.

Possibly, you may feel the same way i do. Here’s to letting you know you’re not alone.

And thanks for reading my bit of personal therapy.

Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC memoirs of hydrogen guy rhapsodic.org Henriette's Herbal Blog
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