My Year of Living
As I’ve written before, instead of resolutions I usually pick a subject and spend the year studying it. Last year, feeling a bit tossed about by the winds of fate, I decided the thing I didn’t understand well enough was me.
January and February marked the end of my time at Zynga. Many many people like to ask me about it, my usual response is everything you hear is usually true: good and bad. It’s a complicated place. I also learned more there than all my other jobs, combined.
It came at a physical and emotional price. Here is my advice to anyone about to take a job: make sure the core values of the company are the same as yours, or you will experience cognitive dissonance.
A few more words on working at Zynga: many things Zynga-related have shocked me. Some people who I thought were friends suddenly treated me like I’d taken a job at
Philip Morris Altria. They were more casual friends admittedly; my good friends expect me to do unlikely things. Most of these critics hadn’t even played the games, just read about them and decided they must be crap.
The other thing that shocked me was how everyone congratulated me when I joined: Zynga was among the hottest companies in the valley at that moment. And so many people told me I was an idiot to have ever joined when I left. Sometimes the exact same people. I often think of this story:
“There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.”
I left Zynga exhausted, and resolved not to work for awhile. I immediately went to Ireland, then New Orleans to reconnect with my old tribe: interaction design/information architecture. At these conferences I had some good times and some bad times. I was horrified when I discovered I wasn’t very interested in the vast bulk of the program. Much of it seemed irrelevant to me, or even silly (that doesn’t mean it was, just that it didn’t speak to me.) I felt like an outsider somewhere I thought I’d feel inside. It was like going home, and realizing mom has turned your bedroom into a sewing room.
But then, as so many many people hugged me delightedly and said they’d missed me last year, and as I got drawn into conversations about kids and career and how to make good products I began to feel better. I realized finally, that while what I do had changed and what I care about had evolved; who I love had not changed at all. When you’ve seen the same people. often only once a year, for twelve years, they are not your colleagues and peers; they are your family. I will be at future Summits and other events because these people mean the world to me.
I went to Japan and Thailand. This was my trip of ridiculous fortune. Without paying much attention to booking beyond cheap flights, I landed in Tokyo for cherry blossom viewing season, and was invited to a picnic by ex-pat game designers and other technology types. I caught a train up to Kyoto, where the blossoms had just started blooming, and wandered amidst kimono wrapped locals through the winding streets, stopping to meditate in temples older than my country.
In Thailand, I arrive just in time for Songkran, the New Years celebration. I wandered in to Wat Pho to get a massage (Thai massage was invented at Wat Pho, and they still have a school where you can get a traditional and affordable thai massage.) I found myself in the middle of a celebration with food stalls, dancers, sand castles and stayed until it was so late there were no ferries, and I had to take a life-affirming tuk-tuk ride back to my hotel.
I flew to Koh Samui, where I studied Thai cuisine at SITCA. If I weren’t a parent, I think I might have stayed there a year, just cooking and swimming and learning. As it was, I finally decoded what made Thai food thai; the magic blend of basil, garlic and galunga, and the ever important panden leaves. We would take our lunch break with a foot massage for 7 dollars at the spa next door. We never needed to eat, of course. I fell asleep more than once as my sore feet were kneaded. I also lived in the sea as much as I could. One day, while snorkeling, I saw sharks herding an octopus. Miracles in the shallow seas.
I returned to Bangkok and explored the ruins of Ayuthya. I was convinced by the hotel owner to hire a taxi at the same price as the horrible bus tours, and loved the freedom to wander temples as long as I pleased. As one point, at the top of temple, I found a dark staircase with bad smell, a rope banister and the hint of a light at the bottom. I made my way down, fear mounting, heat rising and at the very bottom ducked under a low lintel to discover a tiny room of paintings. Perhaps it was the fear of entering a dark enclosed space that pumped adrenaline in my heart, or the sheer unexpectedness beauty of it, but I became giddy with joy. I zoomed back up to the light, and threw wide my arms to hug the entire country. I love you so much Thailand. You are marvelous and messy and great and just built for epiphanies and healing.
A friend has told me she doesn’t want to go there because of the sex trafficking and prostitution. To color a country with the brush of the sensationalist media to to give up the riches the place has to offer. She also suggested I might want to skip Mexico; advice I also did not take. Some day I might die (I’m not planning to), it might be tomorrow. But tomorrow or 50 years or 100, when I die there will not be a list of regrets on my deathbed. Only memories.
AND I rode my first elephant.
At home, driving on the 280, I had an epiphany and converted to atheism, not out of anger and rejection, but out of revelation of the beauty and sufficiency of our existence.
In June (not my first pick of seasons for going to Mexico, but the school year makes these decisions for me) Erin and Amelie and I went to Mexico. We climbed pyramids, and swam with sea turtles. I drove through cities where the streets were rivers after violent rains, and fished for the first time in my life (I liked it!) I watched my daughter figure out how to swim and do somersaults under water. We survived an ear infection and mariachis. We had locals try to teach us Mayan, and explain there would be no apocalypse. Erin went home, and my daughter and I grew a bit sick of each other and crabbed back and forth for a a day, until we climbed Coba’s pyramid, the tallest on the peninsula. I have no idea what happened there, but after we were happy and serene. We watched sea turtles come out of the water and lay their eggs on the white sands under the full moon.
Amelie learned how to swim.
Home at last, I determined I should start thinking about NEXT. What ever that might be. I had meetings. I ate lunch and drank coffee. I signed up for six weeks of culinary school. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it was a great exercise. What I learned changed how I cook forever, but also taught me that I was not going to cook for a living (something I kinda already knew, but it drove it home.) This is when I decided to start prototyping a life I wanted to live. I went into the fourth quarter trying two things; a consulting gig with a start-up in the food space, and teaching at General Assembly
I fell completely in love with the funny, brilliant founders and insightful CEO of Eatclub but I also realized the fast paced life of a start-up was no longer for me. To be honest, I can’t take stress any more. My body collapses, my stomach roils, my head splits. I’ve been going like a lunatic for twenty years, and now it’s time for me to learn how to be slow. Or it may kill me. Even though I loved the product and the people. I couldn’t stay with Eatclub, or my health and new found happiness would suffer. I finished my gig, and returned to my wanderer’s life. If you get a chance to work with these guys, grab it. They rock!
However, teaching turned out to be a massive win. I loved helping my students figure out this crazy things called UX, and they taught me as much I as I taught them. As well, the class gave me an excuse to reach out to old friends and make new ones in the form of guest speakers. I have to thank
- Andrei Herasimchuk for setting up the class by talking about fundamentals
- Steve Portigal for teaching the art of the user interview
- Eric Bell, for both teaching the fundamentals of deliverable, and being a supportive and amazing TA.
- Randy Farmer, for explaining reputation
- Klaus Kaasgaard for explaining the power of network effects
- Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone for teaching all about Design Pattern Libraries
- Daniel Gatsby for teaching how to design for online and off expereince
- Todd Zaki Warfel for teaching the basics of prototyping (Amelie, who joined a few classes really like this one)
- Dan Parham, for showing my students what a design founder can accomplish
- Amy Jo Kim for teaching collaborative design
- Jen Ruffner for explaining the art of optimization
- Jeff Johnson, for teaching us the physiology of design
- Greg Nudelman for teaching the basics of mobile
I don’t think we’ll soon see the like. It was an amazing class. I learned as much as the students!
And I relaunched Boxes and Arrows. Little BANDA is still finding her feet, but we’ve begun publishing again, and we have a new staff joining the few tough folks who have stood by her these last couple tough years.
2012 has been packed full of stuff I love. I’ve learned some hard lessons along the way. It can be miserable to live with uncertainty. I’ve never had to do it before: I’ve always known what I wanted to do. Many times I’ve wished I could just find that perfect job where someone would tell me what to do and who to be. But that would never suit me, and I know better. When solstice came, and it was the longest night of the year, I almost despaired of knowing what to do with myself. I thought, how much easier it would be if my life ended now. But I lit every light in the house, every candle, built a fire in the fireplace and held my daughter in my arms. And believed hard that if I just stay honest with myself, something will turn up.
But as I sit here looking at 2013, I’m full of hope. I have a couple of projects I think may be wonderful, I have some trips and talks I know will be. I’m planning my next teaching gigs (and would be happy to come to your town and teach there, if you wish.) I’m digging into a book proposal, and planning a new workout and diet routine. Amelie wants to go to Thailand, and I want to visit Machu Pichu.
Every day you are not dead is a chance to live a wonderful life. I plan to.
How about you?