A Short Story about Leonard Nimoy

In the late 90s and early 00s, I ran a site called Big Fat Blog, devoted to fat rights, equality, and acceptance. And in 2005, I was pointed to Leonard Nimoy's Full Body Project photography. (It's NSFW, in the event that you look around for it.) Being a photographer myself, I hadn't realized that the man I knew primarily for his acting ability was also a really, really good photographer. I looked at the online exhibit of the photos and came away impressed. They were just really, really well done from both technical and editorial perspectives.

So, I wrote up a post on the site about it. The images were of large women, powerful women, and it was all in a celebratory and most body positive way. And Nimoy's words that went with the images were all very, very positive. I didn't think much of the post.

A couple of days later, I found a message in my inbox. It was from Leonard Nimoy.

He wrote to me – to me! – to say thanks for the post, and stressed that his work was not intended to mock or otherwise put down these women. His words and tone were genuine and pure.

I was floored. How could I not be?

I wrote him back, thanking him and letting him know that if he ever wanted to talk more about the project, it'd be an honor for me to interview him. But that was ancillary. I mostly thanked him without gushing (maybe?) and appreciated that he put this work out into the world.

And now, he is gone. But his words, his images, his stories, his work that touched so so many, will live on.

PS: A 2007 New York Times piece about Mr. Nimoy's photographs gives more detail about the project (in a work-safe format) and even cites Big Fat Blog.

Body Struggles

I went to a Catholic school growing up and, unlike our counterparts in public schools at the time, we had uniforms. Ugly uniforms. Boys had to wear gold – not yellow, gold – polo shirts and blue slacks. Thankfully once I got to 6th grade, the school uniform had shifted to a more reasonable but stain-prone white button-down shirt.

And during my time growing up, my body changed quite a bit. I gained a lot of weight after the first grade, went on a terrible diet before sixth grade, and gained it all back in seventh grade. The emotional and spiritual cost of these changes, the diet in particular, are tremendous and are things I still live with to this day.

As a consequence, I've struggled with and spent much energy on my physical appearance over the past couple decades of my life. I have always been hyper-aware of the way I look and I have always been concerned with being judged by my body. It is a default that I carry with me.

One example I think about is that ugly uniform. I think back to the way that uniform felt on me. It felt tight and restrictive, especially once I gained weight. The pants were tight in the waist, and a belt was even tighter, many days to the point of pain. My pants sizes moved squarely into "husky" territory, and sometimes, those pants had to be special ordered. All the while I got this image of my body in my head, and thought for certain that clothing had to fit a certain way. It had to be a little painful and not very forgiving.

Similarly, a couple of years ago I tried on a rather dapper shirt at a store. It looked great when I was standing up in the dressing room. It was a little... shall we say... fitted. But I was driven by the size of the shirt. It was a small. See, so wearing it would mean... I was small. I'd not been small before. That was exciting to parts of me! So I bought it. I wore it to work the next day and remember that I was in pain – in actual pain – from having a too-tight shirt. I remember getting back in the car for the drive home, unbuttoning the shirt, and just being able to fucking breathe. That incident caused me to really reflect on how I treat my body. And I returned the shirt. And I apologized to myself, and worked with myself, for I had really set myself up to fail.

These aren't isolated feelings. My mind can easily spin up several incidents regarding my body and the way others hurt me because of it. All of these experiences set me up to be in a place where I was disconnected from my body, at war with it many times, because I didn't feel comfortable in it. It is only within the past several years that I have started to slowly, slowly unpack these feelings and address them as I see fit.

Still, these experiences drift into my mind now and then. They show up when I try on pants that are just a smidge too small, or shoes that almost fit. They gently, subtly reinforce this notion that my body is wrong in some way. At the same time I've made wonderful efforts towards acceptance, self-love, and self-care, there is still a part of me inside that agrees.

Changing Bigger Patterns

In the past I've espoused the idea of focusing on the small things in your life in order to bring about design changes. They're the “microinteractions” of our lives, if you will. In my experience, that is arguably the easiest stuff to tackle. I'd rather focus on something like not drinking caffeine in the afternoon in order to improve my health, versus going all out and saying I'm going to eliminate all caffeine for three quarters of the year (ACK!)

That's one example, of course, and you may be at a place to do something bigger. That's when it's time to look not just at your goals – those things way up high – but larger patterns. They're at the “product design” level.

I've got to admit, I've been feeling a little bummed lately. I've been more irritable, I've been exercising less, and my attitude towards my body has shifted to a negative place right now. And when I've had only now in focus, it's felt new and singular. I've wondered, “Wow, how do I get through this?” A few days ago I found myself rifling through old journal entries; I was very curious about what I was writing and thinking a year ago. And do you know what I found?

Much of the same stuff.

I wrote about very, very similar feelings on very, very similar topics. It was a small but important aha! moment. It started to reveal something bigger: this is something that happened to me last year at around the same time. So, what caused that? I was curious about it, so I read some of my other entries from around that time. I found that I had worked through some of these things. It gave me comfort and assured me that it was something that Past Me had also confronted.

Now, though, I'm able to see that this is something that has happened two years straight – so I can address it if I choose to. I might take action on this, or I might leave my future self more clues – more information about how this moment feels, how this all is going right now. But having that information and knowing the scale of this pattern is really, really helpful for me.

The Size of It

When it comes to our daily lives, then, how can we tell what kind of pattern we're in? How do we know if this is something small, medium, large, or even larger? Here are a few pointers.

  1. First off, notice what you're doing. When you're in the middle of something – anything – and you notice it, also take that time to notice the way you're feeling about it. When I was writing my journal a few days ago, I felt very wrapped up in the emotions I was capturing but – and this was key – I was also curious about what had happened before. And I let that curiosity assist me.
     
  2. Drill down into the “why”. Now that you've observed something about yourself, to borrow research lingo, it's time to analyze it. You don't need to write a 50-page PowerPoint deck on it... unless you want to, of course... but be present in that moment, with those feelings. What's really happening? Ask yourself “why” multiple times. Be honest with yourself and you will find that the answers get bigger and bigger.
     
  3. If you want to change it, design it to scale. Of course, you have to choose to want to change the pattern. You don't have to. You can do it later, or not at all. But should you choose to change it, brainstorm and think about the actions that can lead to what you want. In my example, if I don't want to get into a self-care rut right around late January maybe I need to do multiple things in order to improve my attitude – and it wouldn't hurt to do them in advance of this time period, either. But one change that I see as small probably won't be enough. It's an experiment I'm willing to try.
     
  4. Keep tabs on it. Obviously, I'm a fan of journaling. But one of the actions I can take to help me keep tabs on it is to pop a reminder for myself into my calendar ahead of time. That's a way to get it out of my head and let me think about it later. And in the GTD bonus round, I'll just make a project in my Someday bucket (or schedule it for much later this year) so I can proactively take care of myself.
     
  5. Do it. The hardest part. I know I'll be scared, or be tempted to brush it off. But now I know from experience what brushing it off has felt like!

You wouldn't redesign a microinteraction with the intent of affecting change in the entire system. As in design, it's all about the scale of the challenge.

Come hear me speak in 2015!

I'm very pleased to share a couple of updates on the speaking front!

SXSW this March

First, Elysse Zarek and I are presenting Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids at SXSW in March! We're excited to share with you the ways you can encourage a positive relationship with technology in your kids.

We're presenting on Sunday, March 15th at 3:30pm. Here are the details on our session, and don't forget that you can still register for SXSW!

WebVisions Portland this May

I'm also very pleased to share that I'll be speaking at WebVisions in the great city of Portland, Oregon, this May! My talk, Better Living Through Design, was a standing room-only presentation in Chicago last September. It's going to be a blast, and I can't wait to share it with you.

Don't miss the interview I did with WebVisions last year, too. You can register for WebVisions right now!

Untrusted System

It's kinda funny to admit, but one of the cornerstones of my Better Living Through Design talk is how flawed my brain is. It's a straight up blow to the ego, and it's humbling. It's almost embarrassing to admit it. But it is true.

And when it comes to Getting Things Done (GTD), the organizing system I've been interested in for a few years, my brain has fiercely held on. I first noticed it nearly two years ago, and have been feeling it ever since. I ended up in a place of quasi-GTD where some things were really, really handled well by my “trusted system” and others that remained in my head.

Within the past few weeks, I've had a change of heart. I am on the precipice of plunging right into GTD and truly implementing it. But I admit, I am afraid to do so.

Holding myself back

The biggest fear? Full on acknowledgement that I can't hold everything in my head. It's admitting, in a way, that my life is complex and complicated. It's admitting that I can't remember everything I need to do in the coming week, day, month, and so forth. It's an attachment to a way of being that is not... me. And wow, my brain is not a fan of that.

I've also been seduced by the marketing angle of all of it. GTD has felt like a Way of Life, in title case, and a big thing. That is both intriguing and repulsive to me.

Due in part to that perception, my mind then distracts me from the tasks at hand. It feels a lot more productive to reevaluate OmniFocus versus Things (my app of choice) again than just plunge in and organize my Things Inbox. And, in terms of the way I've handled GTD, the Inbox is where all of my loose to do items go. They require organization, clarification, and refinement – straight up work.

It's an IA problem

When I step back and look at the root of the problem, though, it's more about the IA (how I've organized my lists) than the UX (the tools and processes). There have been times when I've done the brain dump – getting all of those to-dos and items out of my head and into the Inbox – and nothing else. And I tell you, that alone feels good! Until I look at an Inbox with 75+ unsorted items. Then it's back to Overwhelming City.

GTD provides a system to organize these bits. It leans heavily on Next Actions: individual, physical actions that one can take to get closer to a particular outcome. Small tasks. Doable tasks. Then there are Projects, which sound daunting but are really a number of tasks grouped together. Some Projects and Next Actions go into a Someday bin, which means I care about them... but not necessarily right now. And there are Waiting items, those that are dependent on others.

On top of that, there are the concepts of Contexts and Areas of Responsibility. Contexts address where a task can be done (I surely can't change a light bulb in the kitchen when I'm at work), and the Areas of Responsibility live above Projects, addressing my bigger goals.

The system, as you can see, is carefully designed. There are processes and rules. I understand them. My brain gets it. But that fear? That is real. And it's coming from a place of concern that if I organize my entire life – setting aside the drama – then where will the spontaneity be? Where will the creative things be?

Yet, if GTD is reframed as not a thing to organize my entire life, but to organize the bits that crave to be organized... it's a tool, instead of a Way of Life. It's another thing I can use in order to clear up my head and get to the good stuff.

And so, in revisiting my post on GTD from April 2013, I feel I can end it with the exact same words.

So, I can say that thus far my experience with a trusted system has been fine - but I need to actually trust that trusted system first. Letting go is a big step.

Inaction is a choice

A slide from my talk, Better Living Through Design:

designchoice.jpg

 

Roz Duffy's excellent post, Just Start Flossing, brought up a slew of emotions and thoughts for me. I was also influenced by watching the entire GTD series (with David Allen himself!) on lynda.com.

The theme? Just do it. Get your shit together and do it.

What gets in the way? Often, it's my brain.

My brain is an awesome tool. It's not perfect, but it has served me well for 37 years so far. But sometimes, it helps get me royally stuck. I stand on the precipice of possibility and freak right out. Or rather, my brain freaks out. It starts asking too many questions in what feels like a nanosecond. What if the other choice was better? What if I'm doing it wrong? What will I think about it? What will others think? How much will this be messed up? Will it actually be good?

That, in turn, oft seized me up. I would do nothing; or, rather, I would do something else that required a lower level of effort. Like tweeting. Or shopping. Or going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Or putting the dishes away. All of that stuff that never goes away. This is so low effort that I call it inaction because it's a lack of movement on the big, scary stuff.

That's why I advocate for small changes, something that is echoed in Roz's post and the GTD philosophy too. Small stuff, my brain can handle. Turn off notifications from Mail on my phone? Oh yeah. Start eating more avocado? Most definitely. Be mindful of nutrition when picking foods? Yep.

Hear me now and believe me later: inaction is a choice you make, and it is actually an action! In the parlance of design, it is akin to reviewing the research and choosing to do nothing. It is valid, yes, but it has consequences – just as other actions do. And really, it just doesn't feel the same as a concrete action does.

There is a sea of choices, possibilities, and decisions out there. It's on us whether we want to dive in or not.

Denver, the second time around

When I was very young, the idea of moving to Denver was planted in my noggin and stuck with me for a long, long time. Denver was the place I would live, I decided. I wasn't sure why; I hadn't been there, I hadn't known anyone from there. But I think the idea of living in a different place (but not too different) was appealing to young me.

In 2003, my wife and I moved to Denver. This was it. This was where I was going to be, and where I was going to live. But between my job (which was OK) and her job (which was pretty awful), I got myself stuck in a rut. Instead of looking around for possibilities and growth, I closed myself off and wanted to get back to Chicago as soon as possible. It happened. We were there for just a year.

But over the past few years, there's been enough change in my life to warrant a reexamination of it. And as I mentioned in my post, The Last Everything, there were a lot of factors that went into deciding to move to Denver this time. I said:

The only time I've lived outside of Chicago was, in fact, in Denver over 10 years ago. It was a very different time, and I was a very different person.

I can't ignore where I am in my life now when examining this. 12 years ago, I was young and green. I hadn't traveled all that much and thought cities (at least in the US) were all the same. I was expecting a Chicago-like experience in Denver. And when that failed to materialize, I became small and hardened. I didn't try to plant roots. I didn't try to make too many new friends. I simply shut myself off, and pined for the familiar things back in Chicago.

It was a change and I handled it poorly.

This time around, things are altogether different. I have a wife and a son. I have a larger family support group in Colorado. I am walking in with an open mind. I have a new job with smart people. I can feel the potential and the opportunity growing. It will not be easy. Parts of me will want it to be easy. But it will be different and, this time, I will make it better.

The little kid who wanted to live in Denver is delighted.

Open by default

I am always looking for what's good in people. And then, I want to pump that goodness up, promote it, and do amazing work with others.

In the spread of my career I've moved from working solo to working on technology that was closer to people (UI) and later still, working directly with people. All of these phases have challenged me to improve my communication skills, and I'm still very much learning.

As such, I maintain a number of guidelines when I'm working with people for the first time. They inform the ways I communicate with others, conduct business... and everything else, really. That's not to say that they stay fixed over time; I respect the way the relationship naturally grows. But this is how I begin.

  • The other person is smart. I have always hired people smarter than me and it has never failed me, and I take this assumption to my co-workers and co-conspirators too.
     
  • The other person has good intentions and wants to succeed. This is putting an amazing amount of trust in the other person, but then, I assume she's trusting me just as much. No agendas, no twirling mustaches. We're here to make something fantastic and enjoy it.
     
  • I will learn something from the other person. Her experience and her work can be incredibly influential on me because I allow it to be. People are fascinating.
     
  • The other person is doing her very best work. This one gets tricky. Sometimes, we phone it in (and it's worth examining why that is – another time.) But I still treat each project and piece of work as the very best representation of that person's ideas given her constraints, limitations, and experience. I look for strengths in the simplest-seeming ideas.
     
  • We both have a sense of humor. I can definitely read when Business Mode is fully required, but some things may happen that are stressful... and humor can be a release valve for that.
     
  • And finally, we will connect and create something great. Connection only means that we need to work well together – in a flow, and in a collaborative way.

And that's it. Those are the guidelines I start with in just about any relationship or point of contact.

Kicking the dog at Christmas

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There's a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Paul McAleer, on Santa's list of 2014 gift posts.

The kids are asleep. Tired parents settle in with wine and instructions that would slay an Ikea engineer. Do we even HAVE D-cell batteries? The bicycle instructions assume a foreman's toolbelt - these will never be ready! Dozing by the fire, the family dog senses the mood, and discreetly pads upstairs, away from the tensing primates.

One way to spot dysfunction in a family may be to gauge how the pets are treated by the humans. I was going to say children, but animal abuse crosses generations. Frustration and an inability to cope leads to lashing out against something more within the control of the angry and frustrated human. These are profoundly unproductive strategies in dealing with stress, not to mention criminally horrible for the animal.

Today's reason for typing, however, has nothing to do with animals or dysfunctional families - but a topic of recent interest: cybersecurity. Dermot Casey opined on Twitter that the recent hack on Sony involving the (likely insipid) movie "The Interview" was 'a Snowden moment for the private sector.' Profound, that. Consider. The private sector now understands how a business can be disrupted, utterly, when a hack targets deep secret programs and - unique in this Sony case - persons. 

Storytime! 

Once upon a time, a federal agency deployed a portal for one of their divisions. Entirely within the firewall, as most portals were then, which always made it difficult to show prospective clients examples of portal work. "Can you show me a live example of one of your portals?" "No, because they are all behind firewalls and it would be illegal." The answer should have started with the ethical barriers, but the physical ones always came to mind first. 

Unfortunately, this particular agency suffered a potential loss of information when a contractor's laptop was stolen out of his vehicle. The contractor was supporting an entirely different division, worked for a company other than the one who helped assemble the portal - but the loss of citizen Social Security Numbers was a scandal that demanded a response. Among the first responses: an order to shut down that portal. The portal located entirely within the firewall, that had no evidence of compromise. As related to the laptop theft as Justin Beiber is to the dynasty of Lesotho. A frustrated kick to an utterly unrelated project.

The response to the public sector "Snowden moment," and the Wikileaks moment before it, includes questioning the information sharing initiatives that were launched across the intelligence community and the Department of Defense following 9/11. If we return to stove-piped information silos (a.k.a. "cylinders of excellence"), then the next Pvt. Manning or Snowden would not be able to wreak their levels of cross-agency damage. There may be some minimal truth to this, so perhaps the dog-kicking reference is frayed here - but such regression is ultimately self-defeating. The legitimate rationale for information sharing survives, and reversing these initiatives must be justified against the 9/11 Commission Report findings.

In the new world of work, connectedness and transparency provide competitors and malcontents with weapons previously unknown. We have come a long way from the resistance to early intelligence efforts in the beginning of the 20th century - “gentlemen do not read one another’s mail.” Now, with information the currency and data the lifeblood of organizations, everyone’s mail will get read by unexpected parties. However, returning to a risk-averse, build-the-wall-higher mindset appears to be a doomed strategy. There is too much to be gained through information theft, and motivation to scale the walls will persist. Returning to some 20th century strategies that predated global connectivity sounds like someone trying to sell a better buggywhip to Henry Ford. Many dogs will be kicked, I fear, before we settle on an effective practice of security in the new age. The new age calls for new thinking - old security tropes will not suffice against new threats.

So this Christmas, let the sleeping dog lie. Reject the knee-jerk response (pun intended), and consider creative responses to the challenges that lie ahead.

Misalignment

What happens when our actions are misaligned with our intentions and our values?

Before I dive in, a brief aside. The way I started working on designing myself included (surprise!) a framework. I positioned it as three parts of my self: the drivers, the mind, and the body. Now that I've sat with this talk and philosophy for a while, I feel “drivers” could be updated to better account for the heart and the gut. These two parts are similar, but distinct.

My heart is a source of compassion and care. It is empathic. It focuses on feeling and emotion. My gut, in slight contrast, draws on my heart but also pulls on my experience, knowledge, and immediate, deep reactions to things. It's the part of me that “knows” if something is right or wrong, generally in the here and now; my heart is the part that knows how I will feel about that decision over time.

Got it? Great. Now then. Misalignment.

On a very cerebral level, misalignment occurs when your heart, gut, body, and mind are unable to make an idea, a concept, into something else. It may be due to attachment to a specific desired outcome. It may be due to fear. It may be due to anxiety. It might be all of these things.

Root cause analysis for my feelings

Lately, I've been quite misaligned: my mind has been in the driver's seat. Longtime readers and listeners know that for me, that's a common place to be; I've been seeking to actively change it over the past few years. But, as they say, old habits die hard and there is a comfort and familiarity when my mind is in charge that remains tough to resist.

When my mind is in the driver's seat I notice it in my body first. I've felt increasingly disconnected from it for the past few months. There's a lot less of the, “Wow! I can run a 5K!” type of feeling and more of the, “Huh, I don't feel much about my body” notion floating around my head. That's curious to me so I sit with these feelings and track them down. It's like a root cause analysis for my feelings, but way less analytical. I try to relax my inner critic and just listen. When it comes to matters of the body, the first thing I check is how my activity level has been. And I know that it's been low – I know it in my gut, and in my heart. I also check in and see how else I've been treating my body.

Once I've listened to what's going on, I quiet the desire to fix it immediately and consider how it all happened and how I feel about it all. That puts my mind at ease, and satisfies my curiosity... and also lets me address intentions: the things I know and feel in my heart and gut. In the case of low activity, it's a combo of (again) old habits and also new roadblocks I've put up in front of myself: I won't go out for a run today because... I'm getting used to a new schedule. I need time to adjust to all of these big life changes lately. And the classic, But there's so much other stuff to do on your to do list! Then, other parts of me pile on. It gets pretty noisy.

But bringing in the heart and the gut here is key. Because they know what's going on and they also know how I feel about the misalignment. They also help me realize that right now, it seems like my intentions and my actions are on two different planets. Because if I'm doing something or not doing something, and I can't connect it to something of importance to me, it becomes very difficult for me to proceed. I start to resist it. I fall back into old patterns and habits.

Are your habits valuable to you right now?

So, then, once a disconnection is identified and understood at some level, that's when I start to address it. This is tough because there's a reason I fell into the old habits, right? They're comfortable. They're known. They're valuable, for some reason. But I need to ask myself if they're valuable to me right now. And if they are, well, then that leads to further questioning. But if they are not – again, drawing on my intentions and my heart – it's like an action plan springs up before my very eyes. I start to feel like the parts of me that love to plan can start to do it. It gets more exciting.

That doesn't mean the changes are easy, and some are bigger than others for sure. But knowing why and how these habits return, understanding what they're doing for me, and ensuring they align with my intentions help me turn ideas into something more substantial – actions and plans.