We dedicate a lot of time at work. Whether it's working for a company or ourselves, we'll spend a large chunk of our lives at a workspace. In this post I'd like to document the various workspaces I've been a part of and some of the lesson I learned while there.
Way Basics (2008 - 2011)
What: Startup company selling eco-friendly storage furniture. I was the first employee.
Responsibility: Operations Manager & Business Development
Workspace: Although I don't have a photo of my workspace, the photo above is from a tradeshow (pseudo workspace) the team attended in Florida. The photo includes (left to right) the CEO, Marketing Manager, and me.
Lessons: This role was my professional MBA. Fresh out of undergrad I was thrust into a fast-paced startup environment where I negotiated contracts, facilitated fulfillment of thousands of orders, and established many of the logistical and operational processes at the company. I shared an office with the founder/CEO who was a great mentor to me. We had many late night product and business discussions that honed my product development and management skills.
What: Quest builds software for IT professionals. It was acquired by Dell in 2012.
Responsibility: Learning Management System Product Owner
Workspace: My workspace evolved over time, but eventually I settled on the two monitor and medicine ball setup. I would swap the ball for a chair every couple hours. I was in the corner of the building so had great natural light throughout the day.
Lessons: My first corporate job. Coming from a startup with less than 10 people to a company with over 1000 employees was a drastic change in work culture. I had my first experience collaborating with engineers in a SCRUM environment here. I collected requirements from stakeholders and wrote my first user stories. During this period I started teaching myself how to code, and was able to apply what I was learning by building some internal web apps for the team. It was here that I also learned that Product Management was a career path I wanted to pursue.
What: Amplify creates software for the K-12 education market. I was part of the literacy assessment team.
Role: Product Owner
Workspace:That was my desk and view during my last two months at Amplify. Can't beat the view of the Manhattan bridge from Dumbo.
Lessons: My first job after relocating from California to New York. This was also my first role that was 100% focused on Product Management through the role of a Product Owner. The team implemented the SCRUM framework and released to production every two weeks. In this role I learned the ins and outs of SCRUM, how to run sprints and manage a backlog. It was a tremendous learning experience that taught me the difference between being Agile and agile.
LightSail Education (2015 - 2017)
What: LightSail is a mobile and web-based application targeted at K-12 students and teachers. It's a digital library where students can discover and read fiction and non-fiction books.
Role: Product Manager
Workspace: My first standing desk workspace. Typically I would stand half the day and sit for the remainder. I used an Ori Stand (unfortunately they closed as of December 15, 2017).
Lessons: This was a challenging yet very rewarding role. I learned a ton and am quite proud of the product that was shipped by the team. The engineering team was all remote which presented communication challenges, but we were able to implement processes that minimized the barrier. I worked on all aspects of building the product. From collecting requirements from users, to creating mockups and writing user stories, to testing the features and writing blog posts about the latest releases. LightSail was well received by our users and an independent study found that students using LightSail experienced 2.5x growth compared to peers not using the product.
Bonus: Current home setup
My current home setup. The minimalist and budget friendly standing desk: Ikea coffee table on top of an Ikea kitchen table. I also use this cushion when I'm standing. The setup is flexible enough where I can easily take the coffee table off and transition to a seated position.
Somehow it's going to be OK. My future self told me so.
Actually, he didn't say much. And he didn't say those words. But sitting in the room with him - I knew. It was the way he looked at me. His smile told me what I was hoping to hear.
He looked happy and the environment felt right. It was like visiting a place for the first time, but feeling you've been there before. It felt like home. The computer, the couch, the dog, and the little girl that came in calling for daddy. Somehow it turned out OK.
My future self asked me - how is it?
How is what? I replied.
Living in the city. What did you do today? What are you feeling? What and who are you loving? I ask because I don't remember. When I think about it, it's a blur. I remember being in a rush to get here. The "next step". But I forgot about standing on the step you're on. Help me remember.
Well, I'm worried about this. I'm concerned about that. I'm not sure that I'm heading in the right direction.
Really? You're concerned about those things? I don't remember them. Hearing them now they seem a bit trivial. A high price to pay for the memories.
And my future self sat back, looked at me and continued to smile.
That was the moment I knew it was going to be OK. The stress, the worry, the fear. He has no recollection of them. He's alive and well. He's happy in his current environment.
But I sense a bit of regret. He's missing the memory of my today. The memory of what it's like to be me. I need to get that to him.
I owe him that.
Take a look at this 20 second video of Bruce Lee performing a 2 finger pushup. Aside from the amazing strength and body control, notice the grace. Each movement is executed with control. There is no strain or tension. His body moves as one. Notice how cleanly he stands after the exercise. His feet move as if walking on water. No stomping, no unnecessary noise.
A simplified definition of a professional is someone who makes an action look easy. They give the illusion that they aren't trying hard. There is limited strain or tension, just grace. Bruce Lee's 2 finger pushup embodies this. The lightness of his movement masks the tremendous amount of strength and control he has.
I describe it as a strong soft touch. It's a paradox. A soft touch that requires a lot of strength. Consider a regular two handed pushup. For most, it's a matter of going down and up. There is no rhythm, no attention to the breath, arms, or chest. Just do it and move on. Not a lot of strength required. You do the exercise just to do it. And thus you get limited benefits from the exercise and you even risk injury from poor form.
Yet consider a normal pushup with the elegance of Bruce Lee's 2 finger pushup. Body moves in a fluid down and up motion. There is control. There is breathing. There is focus on form and the muscles compressing and expanding. You get the full benefit of the exercise by doing it with purpose and focus. Such control requires focus and strength. In order to appear effortless or soft on the surface, you must have a foundation of strength.
This is a mindset that can be applied in all facets of your life. Are you stomping through life with limited attention to what is around you? Do you complete your work with the intention of doing the exercise so that you can get to the next one? If you play an instrument or a sport, is there a lot of strain and tension in the actions you perform?
Walking is probably the simplest way to test yourself. Take ten normal steps, pause, and for the next ten walk 20-50% lighter. Imagine that the dial of gravity is turned back. It's again a paradox, in order to walk lightly you must apply concentration and strength.
A soft touch isn't just an approach for an exercise. It's a way to live.
Have you wondered why when you go on vacation, or when you visit a place you've never been before, time seems to slow down? It could be as simple as visiting a new part of town on a Saturday afternoon, to traveling thousands of miles to a different country. Somehow the memories and feelings of those places are more vivid and powerful than the ones from a typical work week.
Your typical week follows an expected routine. Your morning routine, the commute, the job. Each component follows an expected routine. Your brain knows what to expect, and it switches to autopilot to navigate it. And yet when going somewhere new, your brain doesn't know what to expect. There is no routine because you haven't experienced it. Your more aware as you absorb the new experience. It's an elevated sense of wonder fueled by a break from the routine.
People often ask me why I left Southern California for New York. California doesn't typically fall in the list of places people are itching to get out of. And yet after 15 years, I was ready for a change. I was deep in a routine and I needed disruption.
When I first arrived in New York everything was new. The city, my apartment and neighborhood. A new job and title. New colleagues and friends. New furniture and clothes. A new commute. A new lifestyle. I was living with an elevated sense of wonder. Every experience and encounter was new, and I welcomed it. I welcomed getting bumped in the subway because wow, I'm here in New York taking the subway! I welcomed the snow because wow, I'm here in New York and it's snowing! I was comfortable saying hello to a stranger because wow, I'm here in New York talking to a New Yorker!
When you've just arrived in a new place, everything seems forgiven because your new. Talking to a random stranger? New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Pausing to admire a building and taking a photo. New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new. Walking alone without any plans on a Saturday night, New Yorker's don't do that but it's ok for me because I'm new.
An elevated sense of wonder eliminates any self-doubt or apprehension. It's OK because I'm new. My sense of wonder makes me comfortable with spontaneity. I'll try that. Yes, I'm interested.
And yet after some time the wonder begins to fade. A routine emerges. The it's OK because I'm new excuse no longer works. That's not what a New Yorker would do hinders spontaneity. I'll try that becomes I'm not sure. I'm interested becomes I don't have time. When I firsts arrived to New York I didn't have to work for an elevated sense of wonder. It was a byproduct of the new environment. I just went along for the ride.
But as a routine settles in, and the sense of wonder flounders, I have to work to maintain it. I have to find the moments in the routine that are wondrous. The moments that stand out and make the typical days feel different. I have to create those moments. Instead of going straight home on the same train after work, I take a different train to park, sit on a bench for 30 minutes and then walk home. Even the smallest change can make a difference. Anything that breaks me from my typical routine path. It's the break, the new experience that reignites the sense of wonder.
Visualize this scenario. You are walking through a busy subway and someone bumps into you, glares at you, and continues on. It's much harder to say excuse me in that situation rather than excuse you. To place the blame on yourself when you know you weren't at fault. Yet escalating the situation can lead to verbal or physical confrontation, and you wonder how one bump escalated to something unexpected.
Why does it take so much effort to "swallow our pride" and let things go? Why do we take trivial things personally?
Most scenarios have our default reaction, and the reaction we should have had. The reaction we should have is often hard, so we don't do it. I call these the "hard things".
It's hard to pickup the bottle near the trash because it's not your responsibility. It's hard to say excuse me instead of excuse you when it's not your fault.
It's hard to ignore and move on from the word you feel is condescending when mentioned by a colleague.
It's hard to not take things personally.
It's hard to do the thing no one else is willing to do.
It's hard to pause, and do the opposite of your initial reaction.
The hard things are hard.
And yet they are hard, not impossible. It's possible to smile and say excuse me when you're bumped into. It's possible to pick up that bottle and throw it away. It's possible to move on and not let what was said impact you.
Think of a professional. A professional practices hard things until they look easy. A professional recognizes the hard things, and views them as a surmountable challenge.
An example. Los Angeles Lakers versus Orlando Magic. Kobe Bryant versus Matt Barnes. Bryant and Barnes were going at it all game, and during one moment Barnes fakes throwing the ball at Kobe's face, and Kobe doesn't flinch, doesn't react. His levels of self-awareness and self-control are fine tuned, and he doesn't react with the same impulsive reaction most of us would in that situation. A professional at work.
All of us can become a professional. Start with mindset and confidence, and then practice.
Taking on the hard things as an amateur is overwhelming. You're susceptible to giving up fast. You can fight this by thinking you're a professional before you really are. Thus when faced with a hard things scenario your mindset will make the situation seem less hard. During a hard moment pause and think, what would a professional do? How would a professional react? Then push through and try it.