Dodging that Culture of Excellence

With the bulk of my experience being in the United States, any cross-cultural comparison I make is based on hearsay, or what I’ve read, so take it with a grain of salt. But when I think about things like how many hours the typical professional in the US works versus their European counterparts, it seems that our colleagues across the pond tend to maintain a better work-life balance. I know for me, the bar is set pretty high: only working 40 hours a week feels like slacking, and there’s always more work to do. But I also recognize that working more than 40 results in poorer quality and productivity. And we all need to take into account what working more than 40 does to us both as managers and to our employees.

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National November Blogging Month

This blog has been pretty vacant for a while, so you may not have browsed it much. You may not have visited the About page to learn that I don’t really write much anymore. You may not have read some of the older entries from a year or two ago in which I struggled with college, work, and writing.

Let me sum it up: I used to fancy myself a writer, and starting in high school I took writing kind of seriously. Not serious enough to practice at it, but I certainly wrote a lot even if I didn’t craft it to the extent I should have. I had a few things published in very low-end anthologies, I blogged a lot, and I finally began learning to not make basic, amateurish mistakes once my college professors started tearing apart the things I called sentences.

Writing was something I had to do. I wasn’t happy, and writing didn’t make me happy, but it made me happier than I would have otherwise been. It was a creative outlet in an uncreative life. It was something I could control and own.

And then I became truly happy. I met April and stopped writing poetry. I got a good job and stopped writing altogether, at least during my personal time. I lack the interest and passion to craft fiction. I just don’t care enough to write poetry. I think that I have some thoughts and feelings I could share, but I prefer just talking with friends and with April about those rather than blogging about them.

Thus ends the summary. This blog post is to communicate that I think this may be changing. I have to include words like “think” because I’m not entirely positive, but I’ve had this simmering feeling inside for a little over a year now that started around the time the current election cycle began. I can’t call that feeling “discontent,” because it’s less passive and more angry. I can’t call it fury or rage because… well, let me unpack this a bit.

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Take A Break Or You Will Die

When I got home last night, I was exhausted. My work day was extremely busy, I was emotionally worn out from three full days of extroversion, and the whole thing added up to me wanting to just sit and cry. I’m pretty stoic–crying isn’t generally my thing–but I was nearing emotional overload.

Once I’d had some time to read (I’m finally getting into The Sandman – Preludes & Nocturnes, which so far is really great you guys!) and decompress, I glanced through my RSS feeds before dinner. The article Killing Your Wife While Freelancing caught my eye, which was probably the author’s intent; thankfully the article was more bland than the title, so it didn’t add to my tension.

The article did surprise me though. It went like this:

  1. “Working around the clock can have adverse side-effects.”
  2. “Scheduling is more than making a to-do list.”When I read this, I nodded in agreement. The problem with to-do lists is they don’t tend to end, so you always feel like you have work to do. You never end up with free time. Scheduling activities can really help with this. OK, good, I like where this article is going.
  3. “Make a to-do list.”Huh, what?
  4. “Organize your list.”So now I’m spending time organizing a list I probably shouldn’t have made in the first place?
  5. A bunch of other steps
  6. “Reward yourself” once all your work is done!

This doesn’t work. My friend Brenda is a good example of the problem with to-do lists, because hers regularly creeps above 100 items and she only sleeps about four hours a night. As for me, I’ve got so many projects spinning and so much going on that I will never be finished.

When you’re creatively productive, or productively creative as the case may be, you’ve always got new ideas. You have lists upon lists. You won’t be done until you die. And while thinking all the time won’t necessarily help us live longer, it does make life more interesting.

But we’re not immune to burning out. We still hit emotional and mental walls, and because of our creative natures, these walls are more dangerous for us. They can put us into a feedback loop of terrible negativity: we have to stop working because we physically, mentally, and emotionally cannot do any more, but we feel guilty and depressed when we stop working because we feel compelled to create. Either the depression will drive us further into exhaustion, or the exhaustion will drive us further into depression, and either way we’re screwed.

The solution is to schedule your rest and relaxation time. Set aside time to read something not related to your work, or go outside for a walk, or play frisbee, or nap. By scheduling this time, you create two powerful plusses for yourself:

  1. You force yourself to do something not work related, which gives your mind and spirit some time to recharge
  2. Because you scheduled it, you know that you will be returning to work, which lets you actually relax instead of thinking about everything you’re not doing

It seems counter-intuitive, but give it a try. Most of our guilt from taking time off comes from a fear that we won’t get started again. What if I never get that book written? What if I never finish that painting? By scheduling, we eliminate that fear.

So give yourself a break. It’s the only way to make sure you have a life.

Not Working

My work schedule has been all shifted around due to some training we’ve got going on, so I had Friday off and worked Saturday second shift (3 p.m. to midnight), and today I am working noon to 9 p.m.

But since I woke up at my regular time, I feel like I’m at work. I’ve been sitting around all morning just waiting to go to work. It sucks.

On the plus side, I figured out what happens next in Herbert, but I’m not quite ready to write it yet. Maybe later today or later this week. For now, I’m just trying to not stare at the clock, or at my email inbox (which is sitting at 34 unread messages right now), or just in general think about work. I really need to remote into a server and get some information so I can update a page on the Help Desk site. No! I need to wait.

Hate this weird work schedule. This will be a good week to be done with.

Google Calendar for PAX 2009

Late last week a fellow Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) attendee asked on Twitter about Google Calendar. She was having trouble figuring out how to organize a lot of different information in that interface, and since I use Google Calendar (GCal) extensively both for work and personal organization I asked what she was working on and how I could help. As it turns out, she was wanting to make a calendar for the Expo in GCal to make it easier for people and I jumped on the idea. I thought it brilliant and asked her if I could contribute.

Subsequently I have filled in all of the PAX events I know of on two separate calendars, one for official events and the other for unofficial. At its simplest, I like Google Calendar for this sort of thing because a standard calendar is how my brain likes to see dates/times. I have trouble looking at an agenda, itinerary, or gantt chart to figure out what is happening and when. Seeing it on a calendar is much easier for me.

You can do a lot more with these calendars than just look at them, though. Allow me to demonstrate how these can really help you in preparation for PAX.

Subscribe to Calendar

If you have a Google Calendar account (and if you don’t, might I suggest getting one?), you can simply add these calendars to your own account by subscribing to them. First, under Other calendars, click on the Add button and then Add by URL.

Add Calendar

For the URL, copy and paste the following for the [PRIME] PAX 2009 Official Events Calendar:

And for the [PRIME] PAX 2009 Unofficial Events Calendar, you can use:


You can also use those URLs to just see a web page with the calendar, if you prefer to avoid Google.

Update:: Not sure how I missed this originally, but an even simpler method of adding the calendar is to use the button on the calendar web pages. Just click on one of the links above and then the +Google Calendar button at the bottom right of the calendar.

Add Calendar Button

Add an event to your own Calendar

Now that I have the primary calendars in place, my plan is to go through and add the events I actually plan to attend to my personal calendar. For instance, I’ll go through and click on the panels I want to see, then copy them to my own calendar, a la:

Copy to my Calendar

Just click on the time bar (rather than the actual name of the event, which is a link) to pop up this box.

See Everything

Want the full details of an event? I’ve got everything in for official events and will add more to the official events as I read more. Just click on the name of the event to open up the full details.

Full description

Got an iPhone?

Google has very nice iPhone views for most of their applications and the Calendar could be quite helpful at PAX. A warning about relying on this though: the wireless, 3G, and Edge networks are sure to be pushed to their maximums and beyond during PAX as 75,000 of us descend upon Seattle, so it would be best to sync all this with either your iCal or Outlook calendars to have locally on your phone. Still, the web interface can be quite nice (if it’s working).

Check your schedule…


or see the details of a specific event…


Note about Time Zones

The time zones of the calendars are set to (GMT -08:00) Pacific Time. If you do not modify your Google Calendar time zone to match that, you will be seeing events in your local time zone. Therefore, for me in (GMT -06:00) Central Time, I see events happening at 9 a.m. as beginning at 11 a.m. I plan to just change my GCal time zone before flying out, much as I might update a watch upon arrival to match the local time. You ought to do the same.


Just leave a comment and I’ll do what I can to help 🙂

SilverPen News

Newsletter Front PageFor years I’ve heard that, even if you have a blog, nothing can match a regularly published newsletter for connecting with people and letting them know what’s going on with you and your work. And with my annual family reunion fast approaching, I began thinking about how much I sucked for not writing Christmas letters, replying to correspondence, or sending out pictures and updates about April and me. When these two thoughts came together, I decided to start writing my own newsletter.

Since I hadn’t written a newsletter before, the entire process was quite the learning experience for me. I learned a lot about designing the letter by using a pre-built template in Pages ’09, and now feel confident that I can design the next one myself. I also discovered that the content has to come first–when I began with the design, I started writing to fit what I saw on the page and it prevented me from saying everything I wanted to say. In this particular case, the design has to be made to fit the content. Once everything’s in place, I may have to cut a line or a paragraph, but the end result will be a lot better than writing to fill space.

With the family reunion providing my catalyst, this edition has a lot of catch-up information. I don’t regularly see (or even know) most of my family, so this first edition is a bit of an introduction to my website and writing, our house purchase, and our lives with God and the church. Future versions won’t be so family-oriented or focused on what-we’ve-been-up-to.

I want this newsletter to demonstrate a bit of my work, talk about what I’ve been up to and where I’m going in regards to writing, and to share some pictures. It’ll still have some stuff about our family, but I want to demonstrate a bit more polish and flair with the newsletter that I don’t normally put into blog entries. This publication is for the people who don’t read every day or week, but are happy to pick something up every few months and keep in touch.

The newsletter will be available exclusively online as a PDF. This first version was going to be printed for the family reunion, but I just got off the phone with Kinkos a little bit ago and they want $400+ to print 60 copies. Looking around online, I could get 150-250 copies for just under $200. But with it costing too much money to print 60 and my not needing more than that, I’m having trouble justifying printing at all. I might print it myself, but that would still cost almost $100 for 60 copies. Not having a physical copy at the reunion would be disappointing, but I just can’t justify the cost for something I’m doing just for fun. Maybe I’ll make a one page teaser with the address on it and print that to hand out… we’ll see.

If you want to get the newsletter when it drops, just subscribe! SilverPen news will be published once a season, and the tentative schedule for it (after this first one) is March, June, September, and December.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

One of the unique things about this website is the tension inherent in its design. There are things I want to do with it, committments I want to keep regarding update schedules and writing and whatnot… but there’s also the entire rest of my life. This thing is a hobby to fill in the gaps, and sometimes there aren’t any gaps… or sometimes, I just feel like filling them with something else.

When I examine my life and what I do, though, I feel like I’m right on track. It’s hard to admit this to myself, because there are so many things I feel like I want to do. I’d like to be more involved in ministry, and I’d like to write more, and I’d like to commit my life to public service, or missions, or teaching college courses on literature or Ancient Rome or something. I feel like there are people who are pulling me in all these directions, and I feel like I constantly disappoint them by not walking where they direct, by not following where they lead.

But that’s not my life, and it’s not really what I want. What I want is to be a good husband, to become a good father, to grow into a stronger servant, and to provide for my family. My priority is to make my family (April and, someday, our children) happy, to shelter and care for them, and to take care of them as best I can. The rest is just for my free time.

It’s sort of like… you know that ignorant statement where someone complains about something in the world, and another person says, “Well then, why don’t you get up and do something about it?” The question is intended to make you feel guilty for complaining without acting to correct the situation, when the truth of the matter is that we can’t all solve everything. I can’t be a doctor and a firefighter and a non-profit humanitarian aid worker. We can’t do everything.

But I can invest in my family and in my community to better help them do these things. I can raise my children right, raise them like I would have liked to be raised, to give them the opportunity to do these things. Teach them well so they can do and become anything. Support them in every endeavor so that they can save the world.

I don’t know that I could save the world, personally. I recognize my limitations, and while my personal ceiling is pretty high, I know that I can make that ceiling way higher for my children. No matter how far I could go, I know that I can enable them to go further. So, that’s what I want to do with my life.

And I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit into everyone’s preconceived role for me, but it’s my life. It’s what I’ve wanted to be since I was nine, and I think I’m finally getting ready to admit and commit to it. The tension in my life is beginning to resolve itself, and the path I need to take is becoming more clear. Where am I headed?

I’m going up. Up just as high as I can go, so I can prepare the way for my children so that they might climb higher still.

Daily Routine

When I worked at the hospital (Cox North Food Service), my day had a very set routine. There were about seven different positions one could have, but you began with the position they thought you were best suited for (though, of course, it depended as well on what they needed most at the time) and you were trained on successive positions as you mastered those that came before. I began on one of the more complicated positions, but it was all routine.

Arrive at 4 p.m., place sliced bread into plastic baggies and seal shut with a heat stamper thing (to keep everything sterilized and clean), put bread into fridge, prepare metal palletes and trays and plates, set out condiments and butter and get eating utensils in place. Put trays together for the meals, then break down the meal line and put everything back away. Light cleaning, then go up to the floors and retrieve the meal carts, bring them back down, deliver to the people washing the dishes. Take clean stuff from the dishwashing machine and put it away. Squeegee and mop floor, go home around 8:30 p.m.

Every day, the exact same thing. You knew what you were getting into, and generally there were no surprises. Your mind could wander while your body did its job, and I enjoyed it.

Now, every day is a surprise, and as I contemplate the upcoming week, I feel harried. I feel like I have a ton of stuff to do, a dozen different tasks to complete before next Friday. This is the last week I have without a preponderance of meetings for the next month and a half, so I really have to get as much done as I can because this is my last chance for dedicated work-time.

And on top of that, I have a two hour presentation looming in October that I haven’t really begun preparing for. And I hate PowerPoint, but I know that for a two-hour gig, I really should have some sort of visual component.

I know I’d be bored if I went back to such a routine, but sometimes it’s really attractive. I like my job, but the constant inability to schedule out a day and know what I’m going to be doing is a little stressful. Still, the sort of stress and the flexibility and adaptiveness my job demands is why it pays more than the hospital did when I was preparing meals. I guess it’s a decent trade-off, but I can’t help but think back to our days in trigonometry when we all decided that it would be easier to just become garbage collectors.


Amusingly enough, I wrote the article that went live this morning on Saturday, and then scheduled for it to post today. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks: writing articles, trying to get ahead a bit, and scheduling them to post in the future at 8 a.m. every day. In this manner, I could have a consistent update schedule and not have to get up super-early in the morning. The problem is that, even with the internship ending, I still have limited time to write, and some projects or pieces I want to work on take significantly longer than others. On average, a blog entry takes me about 15 minutes, so in theory I can do all four blog entries in an hour. An hour a day to have a consistent update schedule of an entry posting every day at 8 a.m. isn’t bad, but the problem is that not all blog entries are equal.

A poem might take 1-2 hours for me to write, and revision might lengthen that time. A short story might take me a week or longer. How-to articles on the tech blog often take an hour and a half to two hours, not counting research and testing time. A theological piece should take at least an hour or two as well. Personal updates are short and sweet, but everything else adds up quite a bit, to the extent that, if I put out the quality of work I desire, I’d be doing nothing but blogging for about four or five hours a day. Which I don’t have.

And the massive issue is that I still can’t do the length of work I want with that update schedule (like short stories). The quantity is there, but it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Therefore, I’ve decided to drop the update schedule of an entry by 1 GMT every day and revert to “when I feel like it” blogging. It was a good experiment, but ultimately failed. Not only has my work been of a lower quality than I like (particularly in the religion section), but I don’t like feeling like I have to schedule things to post at 8 a.m. the next day. I want to write something in the moment, and to post it at that moment, rather than having to sanitize my language to place everything  in the past tense and schedule it for post somewhere down the road.

Not every blog will be updated every day, or even every few days, but I should have at least one entry in one of the blogs per day. You’d be best-off just subscribing to them all on an RSS feed (I’ve recently started using Google Reader and heartily endorse the technology) and seeing updates as they come.