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The Academic Life

The Academic Life

A recent episode of Roderick on the Line had me thinking about our aptitudes, and whether our vocation takes advantage of our particular talents.

For me, it’s all books and learning and research and art. If I have a life made up of some combination of those things, along with working with talented students to make things, then I’m satisfied. It’s not like I’m saving the world, but I am, in an indirect way, helping to make it a better place.

High education has been my calling since I was in college. I knew then what I wanted to do, and here I am doing it.

As I took a walk around the University of Michigan’s campus yesterday afternoon—sky heavy with rain clouds, early autumn leaves falling, EarthFest fair going on in the Diag, students heading to class—it hit me, as it always does, that I’m working my dream job. I value education, I value the search for truth, and so to lend my expertise to that effort makes me feel like I’m in the right place.


Walk About

University of Michigan Law Quad

It’s a big campus.

Luckily, my workplace is centrally located at the University, so branching out on my lunch hour is easy to do.

That’s what I do, usually, on my lunch hours now. I wander, and explore, and try to find a spot I haven’t seen before. It’s hard, because I’ve been here so many times, and walked around so much.

For one, it’s a great way to get some exercise on a beautiful summer day. For two, it really is a lovely campus.

And three, as I’ve mentioned, it’s how I explore. Grab a camera, lace up the walking shoes, and hit the road. Chicken out at asking people to take their portrait. Find little slants of light. Remember to look up at the architecture.

Keep walking.

Until time runs out, and I head back to the office.


Albion Circa 1995

Albion, circa 1995

One of the great parts about my day job is working with talented students on fun projects, like our recently-launched Albion 1995 throwback video.

The idea? What Albion College was like in 1995, told through music and technology.

The team did an amazing job starring in this thing, grabbing vintage (”vintage” – oy, I remember 1995!) clothing, and being good sports. For my part, it was all shot on an iPhone 5S, often using the VHS Camcorder app for the ‘95 scenes.

Check out the full video.


Ah, Summer

Ah, summer

Ah, summer.

It’s only summer, especially in Michigan, that you can take a group of co-workers, head out onto the college quad, and have an impromptu grill out.

And take pictures of co-workers’ bare feet in the grass.

I use a camera in a lot of my work social situations. It’s an easy way to get some practice in, and it seems my co-workers appreciate some of the shots. Especially when kids are involved.

At work, I’m “the camera guy.” So much so that I’ll purposefully leave the camera behind just so it doesn’t become an expectation.

“Where’s your camera, Dave?”

“Not here.”

But beautiful sunny days in May? Count on me.


‘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.


I Am Not A Filmmaker

I Am Not A Filmmaker « Photofocus


The weird go pro

Seth Godin:

Laying out the design of a page or a flyer so it looks like a pro did it takes about ten times as much work as merely using the template Microsoft builds in for free, and the message is almost the same…

Except it’s not. Of course not. The message is not the same.

The last ten percent is the signal we look for, the way we communicate care and expertise and professionalism. If all you’re doing is the standard amount, all you’re going to get is the standard compensation. The hard part is the last ten percent, sure, or even the last one percent, but it’s the hard part because everyone is busy doing the easy part already.

This is what makes what I do paradoxically enjoyable and frustrating. I love concentrating on the stuff that no one else cares about because I care intensely about it. Things, little things, do matter.

On the flip side, I encounter people who are template humpers and think good enough is good enough. They have no respect for, or are totally ignorant of, that last 10 percent – and have no interest in it. It’s the interest part that’s frustrating.

For some, Microsoft Word is good enough, and Times New Roman is good enough, and an photo stolen from Google Images is good enough. For me, the fun is in tackling the good enough and making it even a tiny bit better.

Even if I never approach something a tiny bit better (and often times I don’t), the pursuit is, in of itself, a worthy goal.