life

Our Life’s Story

Our Life's Story

This past weekend, I lost a long-time friend and college fraternity brother.

To say it was unexpected is to put it ridiculously lightly. Dan was my age, in improving physical condition, and three weeks away from getting married. To boot, he was a smart, friendly, ethical guy – a real model for what a decent human being could be.

At his visitation, I was alone. I didn’t know anyone there, and I met his family for the first time. As I waited in the receiving line, a slideshow of images cycled through. Here was Dan’s life on display: grinning with his nieces, giving a thumbs up at a Detroit Red Wings game, big family photos, childhood times in costume or on a rocking horse. Standing there, waiting, I saw some of Dan’s life that I hadn’t seen before, and it made me feel even closer to my friend.

That’s the power of a snapshot. It shows all those important (and, often, unimportant but enlightening) moments in between the big milestones in life. Dan’s college graduation photos were in there, sure, as were his elementary school portraits. But it was the slice-of-life stuff that hit me the hardest. The snapshots showed Dan living his life. The showed him being himself.

It’s obvious, right? That’s the power of photography and everyone knows it.

What it showed me, though, was the power of the non-artistic, spur-of-the-moment, no-one-is-going-to-see-this photograph. When we tell the stories of ourselves, it’s those kinds of photos that help people really get to know us. They show us being our non-idealized selves.

I was sad to lay my college friend to rest. I was happy to see, through his snapshots, that he led such a full and meaningful life.


Jump the Fence

Call me a railing jumper. I wear it as a point of pride.

That photo of the waterfall above? I had another one from the viewing station, probably 20 to 30 feet above where I took the above shot. Then I glanced over the wooden railing that surrounded the viewing station, saw a root-studded path down to the rocks below, and jumped.

It happens often enough, especially on trips and photo assignments, that I automatically look for a way to hop the fence and find a path to get closer. It happened on that trip Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I only hesitated because there were a mom and a dad, with their two kids, standing next to me, and I didn’t want to be a bad influence on the kids.

But then I thought, “Well, why not?” Maybe the kids will get yelled at now, but isn’t it better to show them that a little rebellion will do you good?

Sure, jumping the fence could get you hurt (the rocks were slippery from the waterfall spray) or arrested (though I didn’t see a sign – but more often I do). But getting a closer view of that waterfall was worth it.

Now this kind of thing gets me in trouble. I’ve had enough run-ins with the authorities that keeps me at least pragmatically cautious. My first instinct, though, is to jump the fence – always has been.

Don't slip.

While in Yellowstone, it wasn’t enough that I saw pretty waterfalls from the park roadway. No, I had to slide down the ravine, step into the river, scramble up the rocks, and get a closer view. Tasting the river is more memorable than seeing it from the side window.

Grand Canyon - My little rock ledge

At the north rim of the Grand Canyon I noticed, just next to the lot where middle-aged insurance salesmen parked their Buicks, a little outcropping of rock. It was dozens of yards away from the main viewing area, the one encircled by metal railing. This little ledge off to the side? The one partially covered by ragged desert brush and boulders? No one was there. It was all mine.

So I climbed it. And as my legs dangled from the edge and the tourists screamed in horror, I felt like I was getting a view that few people saw. There’s something to be said about experiencing the Grand Canyon all by yourself, with no one around, and with nothing holding you back from the void. There was no railing here.

And so it is with life. That’s pretty obvious, but the more I travel, the more I realize people are content with staying within some prescribed boundary.

This philosophy is largely situational. Rules aren’t there simply to be broken. As Dr. Renner, my journalism professor and mentor always said, “Rules are made for smart people to break.” In other words: learn the rules, pay attention, and break them when it makes sense.

If everyone broke the rules willy-nilly, there might not be waterfalls to photograph. But if breaking the rules means harming nothing or nobody but yourself, I say go for it.

Jump the fence.

On the edge.

Maybe it says something about my compulsion to hang there on the edge of nothing. Maybe I just need medication. I don’t know.

But while I have legs to carry me and a lack of the kind of common sense that says “stay within the boundaries,” I’ll keep doing it.

In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone.


‘Real artists ship’

What do you do to motivate the person who has trouble staying motivated? Or to the self-starter who can’t quite get started?

How about the person with the great idea but no self discipline to get the idea off the ground?

Seth Godin quotes the famous Steve Jobs dictum: “Real artists ship.” It means you can have all the great ideas you want, but if you don’t release them out into the world, they’re worth nothing. Godin says:

A check in your wallet does you very little good. It represents opportunity, sure, but not action.

Most of us are carrying around a check, an opportunity to make an impact, to do the work we’re capapble of, to ship the art that would make a difference.

Just last week Merlin Mann talked about New Year’s Resolutions, and what a waste they are:

My bet is that most people who are seeing the kind of change and growth and improvement that sticks tend to avoid these sorts of dramatic, geometric attempts to leap blindly toward the mountain of perfection.

…Calendars are just paper and staples. They can’t make you care.

For me, that’s tough to hear (for you too, Dear Reader, I’ll bet). I’ve long been a Project Guy – someone who sets challenges for themselves, just to see how it goes. To experiment. To learn and grow.

I’d never seen America West of the Mississippi River. So I got in my car and went there. I’d never not eaten potatoes for 90 days. So I took on a potato fast for Lent, just because. I’d never not imbibed alcohol for a whole month. So last January I did it. I’d never grown a garden before, so last year I gave it a try and it turned out great. Not perfect, mind you, but I “shipped,” to use Steve Jobs’s phrase.

It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. My problem is, it has to be perfect the first time.

Self starting and self discipline – these are my weaknesses. It’s easy for me to think of a neat idea, and at least get started on it. But seeing it through has always been tough. And lately, it’s been a drag just to even start.

Take this idea I have. It’s a clear solution to an obvious problem here in Jackson, and the more people I talk to the more I realize it’s an idea worth pursuing. Like, this could be my Big Thing.

The idea is there, fleshed out on scraps of paper and in the brain of me and Kelli, my co-partner. But I’ll be damned if I can get the thing going. From brain to paper to real life – the shipping is always the hardest part.

Now, this idea isn’t going to make itself. Someone else could come along and ship it before I do, and then I’ll be one of those people who kicks themselves over not having the guts to deliver.

I want to deliver. It’s my responsibility to deliver. Even if it’s not perfect, even if there are kinks in the beginning. The point is to make something, not think about making something.

So the wheels are in motion, and the homework has begun. I’ve set a deadline for myself, and I’d like to run the idea by a few more people to get their feedback. But man. This thing has to launch. It’ll kill me if it doesn’t.

Even failing is a better option than not shipping at all, right? I mean, it could be that my idea floats and then pops like a punctured balloon. The grim reality of Jackson could render the whole venture useless.

Thing is, Seth Godin and Merlin Mann and Ben Franklin tell me that failing is always an option, because we need to fail at least once in a while to learn some things. If, however, you don’t have the guts to ship anything, you’ll never fail because your stupid pea brain shifts from “Drive” to “Safety Mechanism” and you become some depressed mutant reptile who mutters “Shoulda Coulda” to teenagers at the coffee shop. No one wants that.

I type this after having worked out at the gym, meditated on self-evaluation, and completed a project for my freelance business. Surely I have the wherewithal to do something as simple as ship an idea I’ve been kicking around since October. I mean, really.

This story gets told a lot, but after my first job interview, on the eve of graduating college, I came up to my journalism professor and trusted mentor. After explaining my reservations about the job, Dr. Renner looked at me, and said, “Dave, I had a brother who noticed the same thing in me from time to time. And he told me, ‘Dennis, you can him and haw and wring your hands and sweat the small stuff, but sometimes you just have to buck up and DO IT.’”

At the “DO IT,” Dr. Renner really yelled at me.

While I haven’t always been the best at applying that little lesson, shouted at me from Dr. Renner’s office at the newspaper, I’ll never forget it. Because he saw what my problem was. Dr. Renner had the same problem, and someone once upon a time told him exactly what he needed to hear to get him moving.

Just do it, Dave. Just do it.


On being an advanced beginner

There was a time when I could hear a song on the radio, pick up my guitar, and strum it out until I got the hang of the song’s chord progression or riff.

In high school, after I picked up my first guitar for $100, I could sit for hours and learn my favorite songs. Over time, I built up a competency for guitar playing. No, I couldn’t hammer out solos like my friends. I didn’t have a knack for songcraft, either. But I had enough skill to play what I wanted to play, and to learn something I heard and liked.

I like to think I still have that skill set. Like riding the proverbial bike, from time to time I pick up my acoustic guitar and everything comes back to me. The time I spent in high school was an investment that pays off every time I play.

My guitar playing came to mind during Merlin Mann’s 37-minute-long video on expertise and fake self-help. Mr. Mann learned that there are several levels of expertise, ranging from novice to expert, and your placement on the gradient is proportional to the time and attention you place on whatever it is you’re studying.

A novice, the thinking goes, starts out knowing nothing, and learns by doing exactly what they’re told. Learn the basics. Simple enough.

My journalism professor, Dr. Dennis Renner, said that “rules are made for smart people to break.” That little maxim always stuck with me because it makes so much sense. Learn the basics before you go sprinting off to change to world. You have to know something before you can’t start messing around. You don’t get smart until you move past the novice level.

So the expert and the master, as Mann labels a sixth level, are free to break the rules because they know the rules inside and out. They know the rules so deeply and personally that the rules fade into habit.

It’s the step above novice, what Dreyfus calls “advanced beginner,” that has me thinking.

For years now, I’ve dabbled in many things and have become an expert of none. It’s the Renaissance Man Syndrome: know a little about a bunch of stuff, enough to talk intelligently during dinner hour conversations, but not enough to go out and change the world. Or get anything practical done. Just knowing is different from actually doing.

Take graphic design. I’ve been doing design work for almost seven years now, from my first design class in college, yet I wouldn’t call myself anything next to an expert. I know enough to get my job done, to dabble in freelance projects, and that’s it. Mostly, I think it’s because I never developed a strong enough foundation. No art training and little design sense handicap me, and prevent me from developing my craft to an expert level.

Writing, however, is something I know deep and well. My whole life, I’ve studied grammar and story telling and expository writing. It made English an obvious bachelor’s degree choice, and helped journalism come naturally to me. Writing isn’t easy. But I know enough to do well, help others, and critique bad writing when I see it. This comes from years of doing writing.

As Merlin says, every writing book on Earth has one shared piece of advice: sit in a chair and write. That’s the only way to get better.

Well, that and pick up a goddamn book now and again.

But besides writing, I don’t have a particular skill I can call my own. Sure, I can fix a computer – but I get the knowledge to do that from online searches and a bit of history. And yeah, I can take a decent photograph – but that comes from seeing how others have done it, not from any particular depth of knowledge.

I respect men and women who can work on cars so much. They have to know a vehicle deep and well or it doesn’t get fixed. It’s a skill I’d love to pick up (and it has me researching some ways to do just that).

Mann argues that so much of our knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t get much deeper than a Wikipedia search and a few how-to articles. We become beginners at something and never really advance beyond that. It’d be like Michaelangelo putting tracing paper over a painting he saw and transferring it the Sistine Chapel. From afar, it might look nice, but up close – well, anyone could do that.

That little bit of knowledge makes us arrogant. We end up thinking we know more than we actually know.

Renaissance Men and Women of old, especially some of our founders like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, knew a great deal about many things. They were deep and wide. Their lives were dedicated to learning and thinking, and – in all fairness – few of us have time for that today.

Instead, we take up hobbies and learn a lot about one or two subjects. But knowing something deeply doesn’t simply affect what we do in our free time. It also affects our prospects for employment and advancement.

And shucks, it makes us interesting people. Deeply interesting. Like, magazines-or-NPR-will-interview-you-for-your-expertise interesting.

That’s not for everyone. Some people (and you know them well) are comfortable with a mile wide and an inch deep. I respect that, and it’s naive to think that everyone will become an expert in something.

But man, wouldn’t it be great if we had more people who knew what the hell they were talking about when they open their mouth?

Wouldn’t it be cool if more of us moved past the “advanced beginner” stage?