What I learned in 2007

Yeah, it’s a few weeks late. But 2007 was quite a year–it took some digesting.

Marriage is great

2007 was the first full calendar year I was married. It was great. Every day feels like I’m getting away with something too good to be true.

28 feels older

You know how people always ask you on your birthday how it feels to be a year older, and you always say “about the same”? Well, this year didn’t feel the same. I got old. My knees went out on me, taking me off the bike for several months. After that a variety of other ailments struck, making me feel that although I didn’t turn 28 until December, it would be the year that I first felt like I was getting “older”.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants

That sentence, the subtitle of Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food, summarizes what I tried to do with my eating in 2007. Spurred by friends, health (the “getting older” thing), and Pollan’s previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I now eat mostly vegetarian, organic, and simple food. I’ve stayed healthy and it just makes sense. The more I learn about the food industry we have in America, the more motivated I am to find natural alternatives.

Design can save the world–or destroy it

Last year I got a taste of the enormous design challenge we have before us. If we don’t figure out how to design sustainably, our planet is doomed. Being “less bad” isn’t good enough–we need to actually design things that are infinitely sustainable. It’s a huge responsibility, but one we need to face before the entire planet resembles my first experience at the dump. More on this in 2008…

Work is what you make it

I had made a lot of assumptions about how the job world worked. Turns out they were wrong. Sure, I work at a great company with lots of flexibility, but that’s not all. From the extremes of the 4 hour workweek to simply deciding what you want to work on next, work can be whatever you want. But to make it that way, you have to actually know what you want–and not many people do know that. I don’t always either, but now that I know the opportunity it gives you, I’m working hard to.

Consuming does not lead to creation

At the beginning of 2007, I laid out a plan to become “more creative”. I would observe the world around me, taking notes and pictures, and that would give me an irresistible desire to create products and act in response. It didn’t work. I took a lot of notes and a lot of pictures, and didn’t create much at all (well, at work I did, but that was for someone else). If anything, the sheer volume of observations and possibilities paralyzed me into inaction. Turns out only creating leads to creations. My next idea is to just do it–choose one thing at a time that excites me and spend all my effort on it. Why one thing? Well…

I work better in serial than in parallel

You know those multi-taskers? The people juggling a million things at once, and somehow able to pull it off? That’s not me. Realizing this year that I work best on one thing at a time, focusing myself entirely on it, has been incredibly freeing and empowering.

Don’t limit yourself

This year I realized that I was letting my experience limit my creativity. I meant to use my collected knowledge and understanding of opportunities to create better solutions to problems–however, instead I was letting my (often incomplete) knowledge of existing constraints and patterns hold me back. There will always be plenty of people willing to tell you why you can’t do something, and plenty of time to scale back later. Don’t limit yourself right from the start–decide what you really want.

But know how to build things gradually

Once I do know what I want, it helps me to break up the building of a product into smaller chunks. However, it’s important to make the chunks meaningful to you and to the people you design for, so that you are excited to build each piece and people are excited to receive it.

Complexity is not the enemy

I have a tendency to look for the simplest solution to a problem, but the most interesting problems are often complex and require complex solutions. And complexity can be beautiful when all of its complexities are good things.

Solving hard problems is not enough; I have to care about what I’m solving

There was a period last year where I thought that if only I was working on hard problems, I’d be satisfied. I worked on lots of hard problems, and it wasn’t true. The only way I can sustainably work on hard problems is if I personally care about them. Others seem able to work on almost anything, but I have a terrible time if I’m not really excited about the subject.

Knowledge and experience need each other

Both cognitive knowledge and personal introspection/experience are important in a full healthy life; neither is sufficient on its own. They are different ways of engaging with the world. A friend mentioned that we have trouble recognizing our need for experience because we’re “so far out on a post-Enlightenment intellectual pole”.

I am an “individualist”

Officially–the enneagram method pegs me as “The Individualist: The Sensitive, Introspective type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental”. It’s more accurate than I like to admit, but knowing this has helped me understand why I tend to see what’s right for me as right for everyone else, and helped me learn to accept alternative ways of living for others. It’s also helped me deal with the fact that…

I am usually wrong about things

…either in the short term, or long term, or both. I noticed many things this year that I was so sure of…but I was wrong. It could be that I make too many ultimatums, or maybe I’m just slow, but I’m now watching out for things I was wrong about and continually surprised by how many there are. And so for me, in group settings…

It is better to listen than to talk

Somewhere along the line I started talking a lot. Perhaps because I’m comfortable doing so, I would speak up during every lull in a conversation, often interrupting the natural flow to interject something I thought was remotely related. Watching friends, however, taught me that silence in conversation is ok; that when given the opportunity to learn from people I respect, listening more than I speak is always a good decision. This always reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes arguing about the purpose of conversations.

That said…

Other people’s thoughts are dangerous

Other people’s thoughts are valuable, as they can inform and instruct you, but dangerous as they can also shut out your own. I realized this year that taking in too much information, and information at the wrong times, was stopping me from developing my own thoughts, and that’s dangerous. William Blake had good advice: “Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.” I am an individualist, after all, and shutting down my own thoughts entirely is only going to make me frustrated.

But I think that’s probably enough of them for one day…or year.