#januwordy: The disappointment of secrets

There is a massive, lucrative market in selling secrets.

Not the espionage sort, or at least I can’t speak to the scale of that market. No, I mean the secrets to… take your pick: professional success, a better body, finding your soulmate, running faster (or further), making friends, being the life of the party, retiring at 40, working on your passion, having it all. (I refrained from adding “air” quotes because I quickly realized they’d be littered across the list.)

There is an incredible demand for the secrets of life, of personal betterment. The evidence is on shelves of bookstores, scattered across Self-Help, Fitness, Business, and other categories. In pages of the magazines by the supermarket register and touted on their covers. In article titles that flit by on Twitter. In questions that are asked at nearly every career forum/panel.

We long, even at times are desperate for, those secrets (or by other names: cheat codes, formulas, lifehacks). At some point, though, if we are lucky have been paying attention, we realize there are no infallible codes to finding or achieving what we seek. We come to understand that those success stories that sell are a product of particular set of circumstances—personality, privilege, opportunity, skills, environment, context, and even a bit of luck.

There is no one-size-fits-all, or even one-size-fits-most, solution. That’s not to say that we can’t learn something from others’ stories. In some cases, it might be a lesson, an idea, or an inspiration that we bring to bear on our own scenario. In other cases, it could be the opposite: We see what the “secret way” cost someone (financially or otherwise) or see that there’s no way it would work for us and decide that we are going to find another way.

There are almost surefire ways to fail. It’s incredibly rare that someone who never runs can just go out and run a marathon. People don’t make friends by never engaging with anyone. Finding our to “success” (however we might define that) can take many forms. But when we see others “failing” or struggling, it doesn’t mean they’re not trying; many encounter systemic barriers or don’t have certain types of privilege. Just as there are often overlooked contributors to success, so too the obstacles can be invisible, especially to those of us looking in from the outside. What if we strived to understand those secrets too?

Each of us is a product of many elements. Life is full of trial and error. We may glean some strategies to try from others, but ultimately we won’t find our way through using a formula that someone is all too eager to sell us.

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#januwordy: Day 2

Whether a new year, a new job, a new project, Day 1 is exciting, anticipatory, hopeful. You have plans and goals. There’s also uncertainty, but on Day 1, that uncertainty is exhilarating. Success is not a foregone conclusion, and it’s not clear how you’ll get there if you make it. But the uncertainty is filled with the promise of what could be, dreams of What if it works?

Jeff Bezos has talked about maintaining “Day 1” mentality at Amazon. Day 1 means always acting like the company is a startup. The interpretation many take away is that Day 1 is keeping innovation and creativity. Bezos went on to say that “‘Day 2’ is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”

But Day 2 is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the collision of dreams with reality. It’s the start of getting down to business, the big issues and the minutiae about what this project is going to take. It’s learning just how much you don’t know. It’s confronting the magnitude of the plan and taking the next step, which seems so far removed from the end goal. It’s putting together task lists, timetables, budgets, sub-aims. It’s lacing up your shoes and heading for that workout even though it’s dark and cold and you’re tired and you’d rather lounge. It’s realizing you have a lot to learn for your new job, and you’re sort of on your own for it, and finding a way to push through that and find your way to get things done. It’s opening up a writing prompts page and not connecting with them but deciding to write anyway.*

At times, Day 2 will be tedious and frustrating. Keeping some Day 1 enthusiasm, remembering why you’re doing this can help you push through. Day 2 will demand some creativity and innovation of its own. Day 2 isn’t stasis or irrelevance or decline or death. Day 2 is when you begin to face uncertainty and turn the glowing ideas of Day 1 into something real.


A writing itch returned, and I’m trying to write through Januwordy. I had impressions about today’s prompts, but nothing that I wanted to write. So I started writing this post, and within a minute had already pulled in the prompt for today, “uncertainty”.

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#januwordy: Cascade

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I have spent a bit of time this year on mountain trails. Water travels from one place to another, sometimes with grace and timidity, sometimes with noise and power. It takes the plunge off cliffs. It rolls gently down mountain faces.

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When it rains, which it does quite often here, the water travels in more places. It drenches the path worn by the feet of humans and other animals. It flows as it does anywhere else it collects.

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The traverse of water is not direct, at least not in the way humans tend to think. It does not cut the shortest path between two points. It meanders. It moves where gravity and momentum pull and push it.

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When it encounters a barrier, water sometimes finds another path around and continues its journey forward. Other times, it comes to a halt and must wait until it has built up enough to flow over the barrier. And at yet other times, it is carried with sufficient force—the strength and momentum it has gained—that the water powers over or under the obstacle in its way.

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The traverse of water is not direct, but it is efficient and effective. When the rain has stopped, the source has gone dry, or the flow has changed paths, the signs of the waters prior presence remains.

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Reflecting

As you read posts scattered around all corners of the internet, it seems inevitable that this time of year brings time in reflection. And here I find myself putting words of similar nature to a (web)page, though much has been kicking around in my head for a while.

Posting to this blog has been… sporadic (at best) for a few years now. There are reasons (there always are, and sometimes quite good ones). I admire folks like Doctor Zen who have maintained consistency over the years. My best intentions are never quite realized. I’m a slow writer, and there are so many things that draw time and attention.

I sometimes consider: Why do I keep the blog around? Why did I blog in the first place?

Those who’ve been around a while and gained a following in some circles over time often say (and I have to): You’ve got to do it for you! You blog first and foremost because you want to do it. You want to write. You want to process ideas. You want to clarify and crystallize the workings in your own mind. It doesn’t matter if no one reads it.

Except… it does, to some extent, doesn’t it? Blogs are in public spaces for others to read. Otherwise we’d write some things in a private journal and be done with it. We share on the world wide web, whether through blogs or other platforms, in part to connect with other people. But as popularity of a platform waxes and then wanes, making those connections can become harder.

Add to that, as life moves forward, we change. Our interests shift. Our styles turn. Our positioning in both formal and informal communities changes—and the communities change too. We lose the attention of some. What we have to say resonates with others. We maybe are looking for a different way to connect—a different level of formality or openness or depth or speed or familiarity.

I’ve been reflecting on these things a while. But I still haven’t reached any firm conclusions. I’m not quite ready to let go of the blog. I’m not quite ready to commit to a new venture. In part, 2018 brought big changes—a cross-country, a new job, co-habitation with my partner, new running goals*. It takes time for the turbulence to settle, for the new routine to feel routine.

So I’ll bide my time, continue to reflect, maybe dabble with some ideas. And we’ll see what 2019 brings.


* If you’re at all interested in the running side of things, you can follow that on the blog Boundary Conditions and associated Twitter account @RunningBoundary.

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Stories we tell strangers

We have these tidy, polished narratives we tell. We tell them to ourselves to rationalize, to justify, to remind us of why we’re here, why we’re enduring. We tell them to others to convince them of our investment, our devotion, our clarity of mind. We file down and polish away the imperfections that don’t serve whatever purpose we’re working toward now. They’re the stories we tell, the stories we’re told to tell, even when our minds are anything but clear, certain, committed.

Then there are the other stories. They’re messy, honest. They’re the stories of living, failing, getting lost, finding our way, loving, hurting, giving our all to discover it’s not enough. They’re the experiences we bury and try to ignore. They’re the secrets we whisper into the dark.

But sometimes we need something more than the darkness can offer. So we tell these stories to strangers.

And there are places for us to share. Basements and rooms of anonymous souls. Seats at the bar or on the train by someone many orbits outside our professional and personal lives. Stages before crowds assembled to hear “human” stories but where we can’t (or don’t have to) focus on a single face. The ether of the internet where we can put forth words without interruption… and then either watch the response or close the window and not revisit it again.

This week, I listened as a panel of 4 accomplished women shared stories of their mistakes and failings with a room of 100+ people. Asked what it was like to share such stories, one of them (Renee Erickson) said it was “terrifying.” Sharing stories of when we failed, or think we failed, are indeed frightening. What if no one gets it? What if I really am the screw-up I imagine myself to be? What if… what if… It’s a little easier with some cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. I imagine it must be a bit easier when you have some accomplishments and accolades between you and that time of your life.

Responding to the same question, another woman (Trish Millines Dziko) said, “Telling a room that is 99.9% strangers is… freeing.” And that is also true. We need someone to hear (or read), to bear witness. We need someone to know our experience of that moment. Perhaps we just need some reaction, any reaction, from someone who’s not entangled in our story.

These stories can lend authenticity to the people we are—or the personas we present—in the world.

Most of all, I think we need others to know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we hope to find that we are not alone.

I can’t help but think what beauty and wonder we might achieve if we could tell these stories more freely to friends and colleagues, to those who are now or one day might be part of our circles.

But for now, and for some time to come, these are stories we save for strangers.

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Marquita Qualls (@DrQualls) recently invited me to have a STEMulating Conversation, and at the end, we touched on the value and rationale of sharing personal stories. You can listen to a bit of my story here: https://overcast.fm/+JafmmT5ZI/37:56

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