Category Archives: Projects

How and when I found my Why

It’s way too late in the new year to be still hashing over resolutions. I’m not really doing that, because I tend to not make them in the first place–I like to think of it more as applying new habits. 

But I am reconsidering how and why I set goals.

I recently found a newish-looking notepad buried in a drawer. On it I had scratched out a list of reasonable writing resolutions, on the general idea that doing so helps to solidify commitments. There was nothing obviously unattainable about the list; nothing that I could not push myself to make progress on. It seemed a good foundation.

It was dated 2001. And I had crossed nothing off. I put it aside at some point and forgot about it.

The discovery made me reflect on my entire purpose.

Back then I was full of intent, having just married and started my new family as I began a more technical career path. Intent alone, oddly, was not enough. The wave of new responsibilities and distractions gave me every excuse to put off what I needed to do to start the work life I actually wanted. Since, time has zoomed by all the faster. Moves, jobs, and the daily needs of three busy kids haven’t slowed it.

The other side of writing things down is that you get to see what you haven’t accomplished.

I focused my list on writing resolutions, abstractions of what I thought to be good habits or foundations on which I could build. I gave myself plenty to do, and pictured doing well enough to get out of a regular job. How could anyone have trouble doing this for a living?

That was bad enough, but what I really failed to do (aside from including anything specific or measurable) was fully think through why I wanted to do any of it. I dreamed up no big picture on which I could frame any of my ambition, no real motivation other than just wanting to write. The act alone would fulfill my needs and open doors, as if merely composing sentences on random subjects could alter my path.

Looking at my list now, it’s little wonder that I had not achieved any of it. 

 

But instead of beating myself up for all of the wasted time, I decided to use this as an opportunity to clarify my purpose, what I was put here for. Productivity and leadership guru Michael Hyatt explains it as discovering the why

For me, this means actively recognizing the reasons to put my butt in the chair for the projects that mean something.

Once I thought specifically about this, figuring it out and accepting it wasn’t hard. I just had to understand the signs—like noticing how I am watched during baseball practice to make sure I see all of those straight pitches, how I have to share the big chair just right when reading a story, or take the time to make scrambled eggs correctly.

By working more, but more intently on the ideas that mean the most to me, the efforts will be because I chose to make them, for results that I want to share. If I do this often and well, it may lead to a place where I can free up time and space for my family.

And I can’t think of a better purpose than that.

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Lists are for kids

It’s 1140 p.m. and I’m slouched at my desk, feeling as foggy as a morning on the lake and wondering where the evening went. I’ve just finished plowing through the unremarkable chores that I set aside for this week: watch videos on creativity, sort out the mess in my digital notebook, read my saved bookmarks at a home/design site (always looking for new ways to spruce things up, every season), and check the hundred or so flagged emails and schedule or answer those that I can. And it all cost me only four hours.
That I sometimes allow the buildup to get a wee bit out of control is evident.
This catch-and-pile-and-release serves as a crutch for the times when I have little brain power left. With my hectic family life (which I sometimes write about), circumstances are often less than favorable for concentration. So, I’ll spend mental reserves to shrink the pile. It’s not the best way to manage productive time. I’d rather spend it writing and working on essential projects–and not being annoyed about not writing and working on essential projects.
(As an aside, I find this avoidance to be crucial. I have boiled over on occasion. During a very recent incident, I loudly gave the whole creative thing up then dramatically bagged my writing and essay books for donation. My wife looked at me as if I had just insisted that the moon is, in fact, made of cheese. Temper, temper.)
I have practiced some great methods to handle this instability. Advice and ideas abound. At my day job, I work as an information developer for a software company, so keeping everything straight among multiple release projects is critical. I diligently plan, write, and note using concepts from The Accidental Creative, Peter Bregman’s 18 Minutes, and Bullet Journaling, along with other tools. My productivity mashup works fine during the work day.schedule
However, I can sometimes flounder when it comes to my personal creative stuff. I lay out everything similarly as for work, but managing it among family issues feels like plugging leaks in a dike without enough fingers; normalizing pressure in one place (the important thing I’m working on right now) increases it everywhere else (the other important things I want to work on right now, not even considering homework, lawn care, and meal preparation).
No wonder people are less stressed at work than at home.
In the end, it’s going to be about what I consider important, then paring down and deciding what can wait or move off the list. To something like this. I just have to make the time. And not boil over if I don’t.

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For the Greatest of the Greatest Generation

My grandmother turns 96 in June. Last year, at her 95th birthday party, an extraordinary opportunity to tell a great story presented itself. On this Memorial Day, I can think of no better time to kick it off.
My uncles had arranged a celebration for her to take place during a re-enactor’s weekend at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, PA. The event was their huge annual World War II weekend, with collectors from everywhere showing off their gear–everything from uniforms to campsites to fully functioning planes and vehicles. Thousands of people wandered the grounds. There were flights, displays, mock battles, concerts. It was a history buff’s Heaven. My son, who had just turned eight, found it particularly fascinating (as a side note, it was enormously valuable for him to see it all firsthand; he still asks questions).

My grandmother receives her shadow box. It contained priceless looks at family history.

My grandmother receives her shadow box. It contained priceless looks at family history.

To one side of the grounds a small quonset hut squats permanently, its interior and small fenced yard decorated as if it had just been dropped in from the 1940’s South Pacific. Everyone gathered there for the party, where my grandmother received a large shadow box containing some of her photos, letters, and other memories from that time that had not been seen in decades.
This was all highly significant.
According to family history, she met my grandfather when they both served in the U.S. Navy during the war. They corresponded frequently, spending most of it in different parts of the world. She left the service at the end of 1944, when they married and settled into my grandfather’s new funeral business (he had actually aspired to journalism in high school) in Philadelphia. My mother arrived a few years later, the first of five children. My grandparents lived and worked together until he passed away in early 1982, when I was 11.

A detail from the shadow box, with my grandfather as a young man in uniform.

A detail from the shadow box, with my grandfather as a young man in uniform.

I had always thought it a very interesting story, something to look further into if I could find any records. This chapter of the family’s history was worth telling and preserving.
I had some experience writing about veterans. During a short enlistment, I aspired to journalism myself and worked as a reporter and editor for a paper at a medical center where many of them received care. I heard some amazing stories and met many wonderful, honorable people, such as Jimmie Kanaya, who mailed me handwritten thank-you letters for a piece I once wrote that included him.
Though my time in uniform was limited, I can say with no uncertainty that I left the better for it. Serving and talking with those who had taken part in history themselves was more educational than any experience I ever had in school. I still keep Kanaya’s letters.
As we walked out of the party, a portrait of my lovely young grandmother, in uniform and looking into the camera with the confident grace I have always known of her, brought it all back to me almost immediately. There was definitely a mission for me here, and I could not live with myself if I did not do something.
But what? Where to start?
A couple of months later, my mother and I were looking through some of my grandmother’s records that she had kept for nearly 70 years, poking around for any details about her service. She suddenly asked me to get a box out of the closet; there was something to show me.

My grandmother, during that world-changing time.

My grandmother, during that world-changing time.

High on a shelf sat three large binders full of the letters and telegrams my grandparents had written to each other during the war. She had recently decided to protect them and put them into individual sleeves.
That they should not be relegated to a closet shelf was as obvious as daylight. And there was something else.
In looking for items for the shadow box for my grandmother’s birthday, my uncle found a stack of photo books, most of them falling apart with age, from those years. The irreplaceable black and white images show family, places, friends, and events long forgotten. It was like time travel in a box.
My uncle also discovered that my grandfather, unknown to most of his family until now, had kept a journal during some of his service. The fraying, leather-bound book is not much bigger than a deck of cards, the cream-colored pages jammed with tiny and perfectly legible script. I have no idea what I will find in them, but the journalism bug pparently held on to him for quite a while. It should make good reading.
This priceless window into our family’s history is but one tiny bit, among countless others, of those world-changing times. It is a story that has only been partially passed down. And it could be lost.
Standing there with my mom and the sleeved pages, I could not think of a single reason to not take this open path and find where it leads. We have already forgotten so much about then. We lose more every day. At the least, I could help to preserve this history for us. So for my grandparents, my family, and all of those veterans with stories that will never be told, I pledged that I would do no less than my best work.
Somewhere, my grandfather smiled.

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