Taking Stock

“We are avatars for ideas.” – Denise Jacobs


I don’t actually consider myself a creative. I never really have. I was always good at math and sciences. Not English. Not the humanities. It was too esoteric for me. I couldn’t grasp it. Nothing was ever tangible enough. I guess that’s how/why I was lured to computer science when I got to college. It made sense. This followed that and inputs turned into expected outputs. Everything was in order. Everything had a “right” answer.

Besides, who were the creatives anyway? The English and literature people. The music people. The (gasp!) drama people. I didn’t know how to converse with them. They talked about their feelings a lot. They talked about things that were not tangible. There was no right answer. There was no wrong answer. There were just observations and interpretations. There were no 1’s and 0’s. There was gray.

Yet, as I sit here thinking about it, I may have been one of them and not even known it. I’ve been singing since I was in 6th grade. I have always liked (and still like) musical theater. I like performing. I even write this blog. Could I, or more to the point would I, have considered myself a writer of any kind even one year ago? No. I was the math guy. I was the computer guy. I was the technical guy.

I think that’s starting to change, though.

A Web Afternoon

I had the pleasure of attending an afternoon session sponsored by the Atlanta Web Design Group entitled A Web Afternoon. I became aware of this event from a Twitter post from one of the speakers. Thinking it would be a good way to see this guy speak about his work as well as check out some other good web technologies, I got my credit card out and signed up. I guess I just assumed that the track would be more technical in nature, but I was surprised when the event organizer started by describing this afternoon as one where the technical aspects would be put aside for a little bit and design and experience as it relates to the web would be the focus.

Ok. Sounds good. User experience and user-inspired design is something we all need some coaching and encouraging on every now and then.

But what I got from this line-up of speakers was something different. I got motivation. I got encouragement. I got inspiration. From the very first talk by Leslie Jensen-Inman on being the one to “push the button” to the full onslaught by Denise Jacobs on creativity itself, it was a virtual blitzkrieg of inspiration and education. Not all of the talks were the same length. Some were 45 minutes. Some were 10 minutes. Some were even only 5 minutes. Yet, they were all powerful in their own way. They were talking about their feelings. They were talking about observations. They were talking about ideas. They were talking being a creative.

And what they were saying was resonating. Here are just some of my takeaways for the day:

  • It’s okay to want to express your feelings.
  • It’s okay and useful to harness those feelings into your work, your family, and your leisure time.
  • Nurture the creativity. Don’t run away from it.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and look silly. It’s how you learn.
  • Don’t give in to the fear.
  • Learning leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to ideas. Ideas lead to solutions. Solutions lead to more learning.

As I sat there listening to them, though, I started to realize something. Something that has been growing in me for a while now. I had not been able to put a finger on it until today. I am a creative. Just in a technical suit. The notions they were talking about excite me. They elate me. They stir something in me. Denise Jacobs’ talk, specifically, spoke to the art of creativity and how it’s a gift that should be taken advantage of everyday in every possible way. In that lies my current predicament. I don’t think I am taking advantage of that.

Technology Burn-Out

Years ago, I was listening to a podcast about programming. I don’t even remember which one, but they were talking about the notion of how programmers can go and go and go and spit out tons and tons of code. They can pull all-nighters, spend every waking minute thinking about and designing code. It’s what they (we) do. But they also told of an interesting observation industry-wide they had noticed. A warning, if you will. Most programmers don’t program for their entire careers. Most programmers stop around age 35. Why would that be? Simple. Burn-out.

I think this may be happening to me. But in a different way. Pardon me, but let me draw from my Apple experience library once again.

I was introduced to the modern Macintosh in 2005. While working for GTRI, a colleague stopped by my office one day and asked if I wanted to be a guinea pig for something. Being a junior man (wow, I feel like I’m on Mad Men now), I said sure. What he wanted to do was order a couple of PowerMac G5s and see how they might be able to integrate into our group’s workflow. After all, we had a diversified array of systems (Windows, Linux, Unix, Solaris, Mac) in the office already, so it’s not like it was bucking a trend or anything. I had not used anything other than Windows since I was in middle school. I had “grown up” using Windows (from the 3.1 days), gone through the upgrade cycles of 95, 98, 2000 (skipped Me, thank goodness), and then to XP. Along the way, I had gotten into the PC Magazine mentality of knowing the motherboards, the RAM configurations, the PCI cards, the jumper switches…all that stuff. This knowledge allowed me to fix hardware issues myself and eventually led to me building my own machines from parts. I was in the weeds, as they like to say.

Then I got my first Macintosh. Wait, this machine doesn’t use an Intel-based processor? The motherboards are only made by IBM for the PowerPC platform? How can this be? And yet, the machine just worked. Well. Sure, there was a learning curve. There always will be when you switch any kind of platform. But, you know what? Once I got over that learning curve, I realized that I was using my machine more than I had used my Windows machine. And by using, I mean using it to manage other things, creating new things, and getting work done. You know what I wasn’t doing? Managing Windows itself. I wasn’t worrying about disk defragmenting. I wasn’t worrying about viruses and malware. I wasn’t worried about constant security updates. I was simply using my machine. And that was beautiful.

Soon after that, I stopped caring about RAM configurations and processor socket specifications. I stopped following all that stuff. It didn’t matter. I had a machine that worked for me and worked well. I didn’t care how it did what it did. Just as long as it did it. Reliably. Eventually, I got out of the game to the point where now, I don’t even know how some of these new technologies work. And you know what? That was beautiful, too.

I think the same may apply here as well. Living in the weeds can be exhausting. Lately, I’ve been noticing that I have become more aggravated and agitated when it comes to technology. Mostly with supporting technology. I can say the same thing about coding, though. It seems like a chore now. It didn’t used to. It used to be exciting. It used to be rewarding enough to overcome the countless hours in front of a computer screen looking at thousands of lines of code. I remember when I started coding for a living, I always used to enjoy what I did, no equivocations. Now, it just seems like work.

If Not a Programmer

Ah, the million-dollar question. If I were to stop programming, what would I do? It’s all I’ve ever known, to be honest. I know in my heart I want to move on to something that allows me to use that creativity and put it to good use. A designer? A writer? A consultant? I honestly have no idea. I do like the idea of teaching to some extent. Not teaching in the classroom sense. Teaching in the sharing of ideas sense. One thing that Denise Jacobs said today that has stuck with me all day:

“If you know one thing that most others may not, you have something to offer.”

I do have the desire to share. That desire to teach others some things I know that they may not. I have no idea what that might be, mind you. But that desire is still there, nonetheless. I also seem to have that desire to get myself out there and spread my wings a little. I feel like I’ve been trapped behind my computer screen for too long. It’s my own doing, don’t get me wrong. I have not made myself available for these other types of opportunities. I have not taken that initiative. I just feel like I’m pigeonholing myself as the guy who sits in the back, behind his 27″ computer screen (I love that screen, though!), whose sole job it is to make and fix things. Very technical things. I’m just not sure I want to be that guy anymore.

Uncertain Future

And if I’m really going to be honest with myself, that scares me. Not a little. A lot!

I don’t know how to be anything other than a programmer. It’s what I’ve done for 13 years. I know the framework for being a developer. I know what I have to do. It’s clear. Doing something else is not clear. It’s unknown. I don’t do well with unknowns. And maybe this is one of those coming out of your shell things that I’ve got to learn. I don’t know. Like I’ve said many times before, I don’t know what I don’t know. And therein lies the rub.

At the same time, something new sounds exciting. A new adventure. A new start maybe. I am always thirsty to learn. To experience something new. Who knows, all of this may be related to that itch I described months ago. Now that I’m thinking about it, that feeling may not have abated and has just been lying dormant since then.

And who even says that it has to be an either/or situation? Maybe I’m looking for something that gets me out of those weeds, but at the same time, lets me explore a more creative avenue that is underwritten with a technical background. Maybe even some throw in some development for good measure.

Ultimately, all of this mind-ranting leads me to the feeling of uncertainty. On the one hand, I have a path right now. A known path. A “safe” path, in both the personal sense as well as the financial sense. On the other hand, I have the possible promise of more creative satisfaction with a lesser “known stability”.

And after three hours of writing, I’m no closer to knowing anything of consequence. Just a lot of thinking. And writing. Off to bed now.


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