Do your work as well as you can, and be kind.

December 31, 2009 – 1:54 am

So… once upon a time, I actually wanted to do this sort of thing. (Lousy grammar in the last sentence of that posting notwithstanding.) If you’d asked me in my late teens what I’d like to do after school, somewhere in that list would be the item RARGH SUPER HARDCORE STARTUP CRUSH CRUSH GO GO GO YAAAH!

And then I learned what it felt like to burn out. And in the process, I started learning what I actually meant by saying that I wanted that.

  1. I want to work hard – really, really hard, fail rapidly, learn fast. Well, not only is it possible to work hard without being on the fast route to burnout, you can only work hard when you’re not burnt out. D’oh. Also, you can learn-by-failing-rapidly pretty much anywhere you want. ;-)
  2. I want to make a difference. Well, you’re usually more effective at that when you’re not completely addled with adrenaline. And startups of HARDCORENESS! are by far not the only places where you can make a difference. In fact, if you can only change the world via the medium of startups of HARDCORENESS!, that’s quite limiting.
  3. I want to work with people who will push and challenge me. Well, turns out that it’s a lot more fun to work with colleagues and teammates who aren’t (1) burnt-out, (2) hypercompetitive, or (3) obsessed with work and ONLY WITH WORK ZOMG.

I haven’t done this quite as badly as other folks I’ve heard from, and I’m not proud of still being proud of my “war stories” (such as they are), but for the number of years I’ve been on this planet, I’ve done a good number of Idiotically Macho Things… and I still do. The thrill of heroic firefighting is addictive, but it’s only possible when something’s caught on fire in the first place – where the ideal would be to make it so that fires don’t even get a chance to start at all.

Sometimes a dose of healthy competition can work wonders; sometimes a battlefield metaphor is appropriate – but these don’t work if they’re full blast all the time. If you want to be a good athlete, you don’t run 30 miles and lift weights and compete in a boxing tournament every day and blow out your knees and rack up concussions in the process. You’ll wreck yourself before you get a chance to master everything. What I hear you are supposed to do is train intensely – and an important part of that is rest. You take days off, you stretch, cross-train, eat healthy, all these things.

Now, I realize I’m not the epitome of balance right now. Far from it. I’m a terrible example to follow with regard to work habits because so much of me still wants to prove I’m MACHO ENOUGH!!! by going HARDCORE ALL THE TIME!!! and this often leads to Bad Decisions with Ensuing Consequences such as a nosedive on my college transcript, RSI, et cetera. But I have come to realize that the sort of environment described above are temptations that I should avoid, because it’s not the better part of me that wants it, and it will hurt what I’m trying to do in the long run.

I’m fortunate enough to have environments where the calibration-goal is sustainability and not burnout. I don’t calibrate well to that, but at least it’s almost always clear what it is I’m aiming for and what I’m not – I still often set myself to BURNOUT MODE! but it’s usually clear to me throughout that I’m choosing to do something I should not be doing, which tends to help me not do it as much, and not stay too long in it during my weaker moments when I choose to overclock in ways I shouldn’t.

I’m fortunate to have friends who always recognize my independence and autonomy, but will also exercise theirs in reminding me that they care about me not careening off the cliff-edge. I often push back – but it’s good to have something to push back against. It’s good that I have friends who will, on occasion, stand beside my desk until I close my computer and join them for food, or go to sleep, or whatever it is I’m not giving myself at that moment. On a few rare occasions during college, I found work literally being taken out of my hands and several pairs of hands on my shoulders guiding me back to my room, with classmates waiting by my door until I slept for the first time in several days (Sleep Interventions).

Good friends will let you get mad at them so long as you do get the rest you need, and later when you realize it was the sleep-debt talking and not you, you thank them. Good friends start teaching you that calibration early on when you’re 17 and can afford it, so that you don’t do it so badly when you’re 23 (as bad as I am now, I know I’d be much worse without those earlier experiences). And I’ve been on the other side of the table as well, trying to get my friends to take better care of themselves; sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t, sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. We keep on trying.

This seems to be where this mental thread is going: I enjoy being around people who are passionate about what they do, truly believe it’s going to change the world for the better, and throw themselves fully into that calling – and who believe that part of that calling is to care about and for each other – the teammates they’re doing that work with, and the world they’re doing that work for. Part of making sure the job gets done is making sure the folks who’re doing the job are all right – not because you need them as a means to achieve your ends, but because they are people – your brothers, your sisters, your colleagues, your friends.

How was it the quote went? “Do your work as well as you can, and be kind.” Kind to others, and kind to yourself.

I’ve recently been reminded how wonderful it is to listen to percussion. Percussion and bass lines, and the way music fits together. How long have I gone without appreciating this? Several months, at least. I love rediscovering things after some time away; it’s like getting together with a good friend after an absence and seeing how much you’ve both grown and how much you’re still the same person. It’s nice to be able to trust that you’ll always have some people even if you’re not in constant touch with them; you can reach out and talk to them at any time.

Just looked at the time, and in my mind now, I can hear the voices of several friends going “well, it’s getting late; you ought to go to bed.” (Or, more simply: “MEL. SLEEP.”) Tonight’s a night I listen.

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