Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Play Paradox

Somehow we've got the notion into our heads that playing is somehow trivial - less important than "real work". Fortunately, I've seen enough evidence to the contrary that I rarely feel guilty anymore about playing, even when I'm getting paid to do "real work". I suppose part of it is feeling subversive, but only part. The truth is, as much as I enjoy having fun playing, I enjoy even more discovering how that fun can be turned into something useful. It's rewarding to see the playtime pay off but it can't be about the payoff or it's not real play. That's the paradox of play. To riff off of Julio Olalla a bit, only true purposelessness (when it comes to play anyway) can lead to purpose.

One of the first times I really understood that was back when I first got to try out this new application called a web browser. I was at that time suffering rather serious withdrawals as a result of no longer having access through the academic world into BITNet - one of the early incarnations of the Internet. Fortunately, the whole world wide web thing started getting really popular about then, and suddenly, for the first time, it was both cool AND okay for corporations to get in on the game. And so I started playing around with it. I made sure I got my work done but make no mistake, I was playing - using company access to the Internet and company time, I was fooling around, learning what I could about what was out there and how I could find it and how it all worked. It was fun, pure and simple.

Of course no one else around me seemed to really get what was fun about this. My analogies to a library that constantly responded to whatever ADD-like impulses might strike, following idea upon idea just by clicking something as mysterious as "hypertext links" was, at the time, fairly inept. I kept at it, though and friends and family mostly tolerated my craziness. Then one day, I ran across information about the hypertext markup language itself that made the whole world wide web a more user-friendly place than had been the BitNet-based file storing and sharing of my college days. Just click on a link and you're there. And wonder of wonders, I was delighted to discover that HTML wasn't at all complicated. In fact, for a small fee, there was even a relatively inexpensive editor you could get that made the coding work even easier.

Excited about the prospects and what we might be able to do with such capabilities, I took the idea to my boss. I didn't have a lot to show him at that point except for a lot of hand-waving and more library analogies. While academics had been using it for quite some time by then, the internet was still mostly a place to play at that point for the average corporate hack. But there were a small handful of companies that had started to put up customer-facing websites and a couple of them were even involved in our market - networking - and so I managed to convince my boss that our company ought to think about having a website too. We could publish the kinds of solutions and information we were currently providing our customers via fax and BBS. It would be a great resource as more and more people began to see the power and usefulness of the internet. It would give me an excuse to play some more.

Ultimately, my manager saw enough in my suggestion that was worthwhile to say that he at least wanted to see more. Could I do a mock-up of what I had in mind so that he could see how it might work in reality? He even gave me the money to get the HTML editor. It was called HoTMetaL . That summer, my stepson spent most of his time at his grandmother's so I had relatively few family duties for the entire month of July and a good chunk of August. I put in a lot of 14-hour days learning how to create a website, building the proto-type, and populating it with the kind of information I thought would make it useful. It was some of the most fun I've ever had and I like to believe that I mostly enjoy life as a general way of being most of the time.

At the end of it, I had something worthwhile to show my boss and we took that to various other executives in the company who also began to see the benefits. To be fair, I wasn't the only, or even the first, person in the company to be playing around with this stuff. I was just the first one to figure out how to make a convincing argument for turning what had been playtime for me into something valuable for the company.

By the time we went live with the project three months later, the surprise for me wasn't so much in that I'd been able to make it happen as it was more that we were going live with the proof-of-concept prototype itself. I never once thought it was good enough to be the real deal - my mock-up was just supposed to have been a way of showing people well enough how it all worked to get them interested in making the idea even bigger. Ultimately that happened too and within about a year - give or take a few months - our corporate website looked nothing at all like I'd first built it. I couldn't have been prouder.

This isn't the only time that I've seen play turn into something more worthwhile . And certainly it's not the most important event of my life. I play every chance I get and I make an active effort to remember to take time out to play and explore. And even though I don't always make that quantum leap from purposeless play into purposeful work, it happens a fair amount of the time, mostly because that's who I am. What makes this event stand out is that the linkage between the play and the result is so clear. While I still make an effort to ensure I am productive "enough", I rarely worry about whether I'm playing at the expense of being productive. In my mind, they're related, not mutually exclusive.

I'm curious - what pet projects do you have going that are fun for you and valuable at the same time? I hope you'll consider sharing them with me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - and if you want any tips for getting support for your project(s), be sure to let me know. I've got that part pretty well figured out by now.

How does play fit in with and impact YOUR life?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Back to School

In spring, there is a quickening that results in bursting forth when the changes can no longer contain themselves. In fall, despite the clues that do exist, it seems that everything is going along pretty much as it was until the day when suddenly it's not - like stepping out of cut-off shorts into dressier clothes for the classroom or the leaves suddenly dropping off the trees after an October storm. Going back to school is part of that hard cut-over and it can mean so many things.

With school comes so many endings... End of warm summer weather. End of unstructured time. End of baseball season. And there are beginnings too. The beginning of cooler nights, soccer in the rain (at least around here), football, and time with friends after a summer full of family... payoff perhaps for the added discipline that comes with getting back into learning mode.

We're seeing all these transitions and more around our house. Summer was definitely an unstructured time for small person and me. We went swimming. He practiced his bike-riding skills. We spent time at the ocean as a family a couple of times and went hiking.

I worked too, though I didn't exactly do much blog writing over the summer. I managed a Judy's Book review from time to time and that was about it for writing, although I did also sign up with Associated Content and finally got around to sending in submissions a couple of weeks ago. I must have felt that fall discipline coming on early.

Now that small person is back in school, I am looking forward to devoting some more time to my latest writing project - an interfaith study guide for families. I spent a good chunk of the summer thinking about the need there is today for us to expose our kids to different ways of thinking and believing beyond what we might teach them ourselves and it galvanized me to finally get started on a project that's been on my mind for quite a while now.

I started some of the work of laying a foundation for how an interfaith study guide centered around families with kids might be organized and what sort of information would have to go into it to make it a helpful resource. Now I'm ready to dive in on the real work. If I were to feel that there was one thing for which I was uniquely qualified, this would probably be it. At least that's how it's felt the past couple of months. This is a good thing; I intend to use that energy to draw me into the work when everything else is trying to pull me out of it. Now, if I could just remember to quit once in a while so that I can remember to do other things too, like housework and catching up with friends.

I'm excited about another horizon-stretching writing project that isn't even mine. It's my 'friend' John Moe's, and it's called Conservatize Me and we're rapidly approaching release date. The quotes aren't meant as any kind of a jab; they're just there as a lame way of hedging my bets, kind of like how lots of reporters think they've kept themselves out of trouble simply by tacking on the word "alledged".

The reason I'm hedging my bets is because I have zero clue if John actually considers me any kind of friend or not. In fact, it's quite possible he might not recognize me when I show up to one of his booksigning appearances. It's not like we talk. He did interview me. Twice even. The first time was on the radio and someone I knew heard me without me telling them in advance, which is, of course, totally beside the point but cool from my perspective nonetheless. That there was a second time presumably has something to do with the fact that he too felt at least some rapport between us.

Anyway, John and I have exchanged emails a couple of times too. And I read his blog, which I totally love, probably at least partly because with our small person nearly ten, it's fun to be reminded of what five was like. I wonder if I should warn John about eight?

But here's the thing - and I know this already from television - you can't just meet someone a couple of times and read or hear them out there in the ether somewhere and then think you're friends. You might have some ideas about what they're like and you might even be right about at least part of it. In fact, you might even be right when you suspect that you have enough in common to become friends. The thing I have to keep reminding myself though is that friendships require time and attention - nurturing. This is a skill at which I've never exactly excelled.

Someday, they'll perfect a method of sending "Thinking of You" cards directly from the brain. When that happens, I'll have it made and my friends will hear from me on a much more regular basis. Until then, those who consider me a friend do so at their peril. My friends all know this so that part is not news. Mostly they seem to overlook it though occasionally they are honest enough to point out where I'm falling down on the my end of the implied bargain.

I am helped somewhat by the crazed circumstances in which most everyone finds themselves these days. It seems everyone's busy enough that my own lack of social graces is not quite as noticeable as it once was. Of course it also means that with neither side doing good job of keeping in contact, we'll quite regularly go months without seeing or even talking to one another. On the good side, we usually pick up about where we left off - friendships in slow motion.

I do my best to compensate by sending electronic birthday cards when I remember to find out a birthday and make note of it and by reminding myself in my calendar to reach out to folks from time to time. That helps - at least until I get so far behind that I don't follow my directives to myself any longer to send an email or make a phone call. Usually it's the phone calls that get me. See, this is where being at school or at work together can really make a difference. When we're in the same physical location together, it's so much easier.

If you have tips on how to stay in touch with people, send them to techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - we're not too proud to ask for suggestions and I for one am always more than happy to learn something new, even when it means having to give up old ideas to make room for the new ones.

What [skills/projects/ways of thinking/relationships/etc] are you cultivating?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.