Friday, February 23, 2024

Have you lived more than 5 days in the last 4 months?

Last night (more correctly, very early this morning), I learned something new about myself:

I haven't been living every day.

I read 1970s science fiction. I have over 600 physical books in my collection, and I've read about half so far. My collection started about 7 years ago (I'm still not sure why I ended up with this category). Here's a recent picture of my collection:

2 bookshelves full of mostly paperback books.

Some of it is good; some is bad; some is amazing. They are rarely life-changing, but I was floored by a very timely passage from an otherwise mediocre book: The Earth Tripper by Leo P. Kelley.

The Earth Tripper

Book Cover: The Earth Tripper by Leo P. Kelley featuring a helicopter above a dome.
"When I was a child, I never lived in the present. I was always waiting for--oh, for Saturday to come, because on Saturday I had been promised a new bicycle. So Tuesday and all the other days didn't matter at all while I waited for Saturday to come. It came. So did the new bicycle and I was happy. But then it was Sunday all of a sudden and the bicycle wasn't quite so new anymore. I heard that the circus was coming to our town. I watched the men put up the posters all over town, and I got my sister--she was three years older than I was--to read the date to me--you know, the date the circus would arrive. I went home and made a red circle around the day on our kitchen calendar. I waited and waited, and at last the circus came. For a time, the lions and tigers, the bareback riders, and all the handsome aerialists filled my world. But next day, they were gone.

"One day I took the calendar down from the kitchen wall and I counted all the days that I had circled in red. There were five of them from January to May. Then I counted all the ordinary days and I realized that I had been cheating myself. My mother made me stay in my room alone that night while the family ate dinner without me. She couldn't understand why I had torn the calendar to shreds."

"Didn't you explain to her what you had discovered?"

"I didn't know how to explain. I was ashamed. How could I tell anyone--how could I dare tell anyone that I had really lived only five days in four months?"

[pp 139-140, The Earth Tripper, Leo P. Kelley, Coronet Books, 1974, Emphasis mine]

This was particularly impactful to me because I wasn't expecting it. It was an otherwise mediocre book. I only had about 20 pages left. And I was reading it at 1:30 in the morning (because I couldn't sleep). I was just trying to finish up this book.

But when I got to this passage, I realized that I have been living for the red circles.

And how could I dare tell anyone that I had really lived only five days in four months?

Red Circles

For me, the red circle days are the days when I get to help other developers, when I get to make a difficult topic understandable, when I get to show someone something they didn't know. Historically I have done this is a number of ways: blog articles, videos, online courses, speaking engagements, workshops, and one-on-one mentoring.

But I have been limiting my red circle days even further by only including the days I help someone actively rather than passively.

Active vs. Passive

Active help is when I get feedback while I am doing it. An example of this is giving a conference talk. While giving the talk, I can watch the lightbulbs go on -- I can see when someone is really understanding the topic and is excited to make use of what they have learned. It is also the conversations that happen after the talk: helping folks with their specific questions, clarifying a point, or going deeper into a specific area that the talk does not allow for.

These are the times that I feel most useful. And these are the times that I know that my particular skillset allows me to make complex topics more approachable. And these are the times when I know that I am exactly where I need to be.

I know that these active events do not reach everyone in the room. About 10% get enough out of it to leave a glowing rating or a comment. About 5% find it so not useful to them that they leave a comment. And I assume everyone else gets something out of it (probably not life-changing, but maybe useful some day) -- at minimum, they didn't hate it. But I am able to help some people (and see it), and that is enough for me to keep going.

Passive help is when I do not get to see the impact of my work. For example, on this blog. I have written over 500 articles (over 15 years). Some of these are more useful than others. I don't get a huge amount of traffic, but I do get about 20,000 - 30,000 views per month. If I make an assumption that 1% of those views are actually useful to someone, that means that I help 6 - 10 people a day.

But I don't usually think about these 6 - 10 people because I don't get to actually see them.

So my red circles show up on the active help days but not the passive help days.

Too Few Circles

I'm not sure when I started relying on red circle days. For most of my speaking career (career isn't the right word, but I'll use it here), I have averaged about 1 event every 3 weeks. And during my peak year, it was a lot more frequent than that.

But things change. When I moved out of Southern California, I lost access to the local user groups, community events, and local-ish events (within a half-day drive). With COVID, most events did not happen (some went online). And in the past couple of years, several of my favorite events have gone away.

This year, I am confirmed for 2 events so far. I have another 3 or 4 potentials. The hardest part is that there were several events that I was relying on that did not select me. I have been having quite a bit of trouble with those (for a variety of reasons).

The circles are very far apart. Right now, I am in a spot with 6 months between circles.

Finding Life on the In-Between Days

Recently, I have really been feeling a big gap in my life -- like I am merely passing time until the next big thing. 

The passage from the book made me realize that I have been living for the red circle days. And I have been getting away with it for a long time because the circles were fairly close together. Somewhere along the way, I forgot about all of the days in between.

The point is not to figure out how to get more red circles. The point is to figure out how to find life on all of the other days.

Honestly, I'm not quite sure how I am going to do this yet. But that's okay.

Rough Days

The last couple months have been kind of rough for me -- and not because of the red circle days. I have discovered some things about myself that have impacted how I look at the world, how I see myself, and how I interact with other people. These discoveries are difficult to work through but are ultimately good.

I have been able to put names and ideas on things that I have recognized in myself and my life. It has been hard because a lot of things I thought I knew about myself had to be reframed (and a bit of that reframing is still happening).

And now I am aware of the impact of red circle days. I knew that there was something wrong, but I didn't know what. Now that I have identified an issue, I can go about changing things.

Are you living just for red circle days? If so, I challenge you to find the life on the days in between.

I am going to find that life, and I am going to start living it.

Happy Living!

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