Ok, so it hit midnight on the 29th of July and my Birthday has passed. However, a long week of recovery from surgery, many birthday wishes in the last 24 hours, and a glass of scotch tonight and I get to wax philosophical publicly for a moment. I’ve now been on the earth (not counting gestation) 48 years and several hours (I was not born at midnight). I’ve done a lot of stuff and there’s still a lot of stuff to do. Over the last week, I’ve grown my second goatee in my life. The first was in the summer of 1986. Back then, I found it annoying and went back to the simple middle eastern mustache that I brandished for many years after that.
I think about the fact that when I walk into a McDonalds, even though the processes have changed, I understand the underlying process orientation they use. Later on in life, I’d fall back on that early learning in all my jobs. If there is an informal process, codify it, then study it and figure out how to get it to work better. But never get so caught up in the specifics that you can’t modify it again, or throw the whole process out the window and start again with the new thinking of the day. Procedural programming, Structured Programming, Object Oriented Programming, Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban. Whatever.
My parents sacrificed to send me to Fairfield Prep. My father was an immigrant, a steel worker and a lover of knowledge. He learned his histories through reading and Cecile B DeMille movies. An ardent Catholic, he never lost his faith for more than a moment, no matter what the travails and troubles of the time was. What he was doing was bigger than the idiocy or pettiness of the people who happened to be there since he believed that there was more than you could see, so it wasn’t limited to the failures of men. In that light I served as an altar boy and in a folk group or two along the way. After I got married, the confluence of a bunch of strains led me to offer my time as a Sunday School teacher. I mean, religion or at least ritual, is kinda like process, and so if you do something often enough you get better at it. Then once you do it right, you study it deeper. Combine the teachings of the Nun’s at St. Patricks, The Jesuits at Fairfield Prep teaching me theology 3 days a week, and when my kids were going to Sunday School in the Armenian Apostolic Church, I figured I had had as much religious and ethics education as most lay people get. Since the Armenian church is wedded to a set of ancient rituals performed on a schedule that was pretty well understood, Voi La there I was teaching Sunday School. Of course where there were differences is concepts, I dug in and made sure the kids knew what they were supposed to know to be knowledgeable members of the Armenian Church. And if they asked me what the differences were between it and my upbringing, I could lay them out on the table and say here are the major differences as far ask I know, and truly if you are concerned you really ought to talk to our Priests as they are more qualified to discuss this. Process experience and knowing that I didn’t know everything made it easy to say “you have to make an effort to find out” to the kids.
Bringing up my kids, I was at a disadvantage to them when it came to learning Armenian. Although I had a functional knowledge of the language, I knew the kitchen language. I knew what was said in particular situations and could form basic ideas. When I could see they had an opportunity to learn Armenian formally I was there every week delivering them to Saturday School. There were fights and a lot of crying in the middle years, but as they got older and their intellectual abilities caught fire, they saw the opportunity that I did not have when I was young, and boy they can read and even talk circles around me. I learn from them now. The one funny thing about my methods with my kids. I used to use big words in English even when they were young. When they would complain, “What does that mean?” I’d tell them to “Look it up.” We still laugh to this day about that.
Music. My generation, everybody wanted to be a rock star. Ok I play a bit of guitar and in a weird fantasy I could have been a Doobie Brother. I’d be the roadie that knows all their songs and stood in for Patrick Simmons or Tom Johnston one night when they had a bad cold and show had to go on. Then I usually wake up from this dream. 🙂
Last night I was watching the time delayed opening of the Olympics and as they went through the last 1000 years of English history, I got choked up. I’ve always been an Anglophile, probably my father’s fault also as he was born in Jerusalem and raised in British Palestine. My attitude was how could you understand the American revolution AND the civil war if you didn’t understand the previous 500 years of Anglo-Saxon culture. I knew about Laurence of Arabia before most kids, and Richard the Lion Heart and his battles with Saladin. I watched Errol Flynn play Robin Hood. Close to the top of the list of my favorite movies of all time is “The Lion in Winter” and I’ve read a lot about the Plantagenets and Henry II. I loved reading Shakespeare in grammar school, in Prep and again in College. Magna Carta, Parliament, the War of the Roses, Churchill, Monty Python, Benny Hill, and the Beatles. When I saw the Queen’s spoof with Mr. Bond last night, I turned to my wife and said, “The British are so cool that the whole world knows EXACTLY who Mr. Bond is and what that means. And then a tear came to my eyes. actually several. I got really choked up. Not because of the Queen. Because of lost time.
I got really upset because when the ancestors of the British were painting themselves blue and even before the Plantagenets were there, before Braveheart, Armenia had been kingdoms off and on for over 1200 years. And then there was the Crusade kingdom of Cilicia on the southern rim of Asia Minor. The last Armenian Kingdom. The golden age. The last bastion of Christendom in the middle east before Byzantium fell. In British terms, Cilicia was Osgiliath. If Osgiliath fell, Minas Tirith would inevitably fall. The last Armenian Kingdom fell in 1375. The last king of Armenia fled to France and is buried in the Tomb of Kings in France. Lost time. My wife held my hand. I said to her, “The British are a tough people. if they weren’t, Churchill wouldn’t have been able to rally them. The Battle of Britain in the air stopped Hitler.” I was getting really emotional at this point because of lost time. I couldn’t make up for lost time. Armenia now is a museum to a past that I share with other Armenians, but truly, my people were from Western Armenia. My father’s father and uncles ended up in orphanages in Lebanon after WWI. My Armenia shared a link with the country today, but also was different. Lost time. At least my kids read and write Armenian better than me. There’s a glimmer of hope. Truly that is why I wrote my book Urtaru. I pulled all that stuff together and created the Armenia that I hoped could be (and had characters like the Brits in it interacting with my idealized Armenians).
Then the other river of stuff in my life. When I was at Prep, I touched my first computer. I never looked back. I got a degree in computer engineering, and if I can say nothing else about my career, I know that the VS3100 that I wrote the SCSI firmware for helped with the logistics in the first Gulf War. We got stories back about how impressed the military was that they’d connected the thin wire ethernet using BNC connectors, and after a few minutes of our diagnostics and VMS booting up, the system magically joined the network and began communicating to other system using DECnet. It was like magic. I was a geek and worked in minicomputer/workstation industry, then the semiconductor test industry, then high availability, then a hard turn-left to web applications where I live now. If I think back to my full head of hair and mustache, late at night trying to debug why 1 bit wouldn’t flip in the new hardware prototype we had just gotten as I walked through my code and looked at the logic analyzer, and what I’m doing now, it’s way different. Some days I can’t believe that I’d been given the gift of growing up in the same industry at the same time as Gates, Jobs, Osbourne, Wozniak, Ken Olsen, Bill Joy, and a little later, Steve Case and Scott Cook and Jerry Yang, and then a little later Steve Jobs again, Jeff Bezos, and Google. Holy crap. It’s as if I was the bicycler caught in the traffic of all these guys, me traveling a bit slower, weaving in and out trying not to get run over but going in the same direction nevertheless 🙂
I’m a manager now and I’ve gone back to school to get my MBA and I’m 2 classes away from finishing. There are times when I sit in my marketing concentration classes and have to sit on my hands because I’m in classes with 22-25 year olds and I know what the teacher is talking about, I just never knew the lingo. At 48 years old, I’m most often the oldest person in the class except for the professor! And in a few cases I’ve been older than the professor. Going for my MBA at this point in my life has been exhilarating (and sometimes has wore me down to a pulp).
That leads me to the final reminscince. All along the way, in order to do anything, learn anything, accomplish anything, people were there with me. Some people mentored me, others worked alongside me, others did what I told them. The people who mentored me often were the toughest on me. I learned a lot when they asked me, “How’d you think that went?” That’s usually the signal that I could improve. I’m generally egalitarian so I try to accommodate people’s ideas unless my experience tells me we’re going to run off the road. I have on occasion let an underling blow something up if they really felt strongly that they were right, and sometimes they were right and things work out. All in all I can say that I value people. My wife and I work together really well. I tend to push us to completion, she tends to ask the uncomfortable questions that make me to slow down and do the more correct thing. Lately, my sons and I painted a side of our house together. We got it scraped and painted in 2 days (and maybe a little of a third). I’m a people person, and although I can dig in and do the lonely work when necessary, I love being around people. I also know that I’m actually an introvert which means that after those interactions I love to go hide and recharge.
OK so what does this rambling mean. I mean I’ve lived a somewhat idyllic life, safe from war, pestilence and other things my ancestors dealt with or even previous generations of american citizens dealt with. Here’s some thoughts:
Never EVER stop learning. The minute you stop using your brain and say something is too hard, think about this: Could you learn 50% of it, or 25% even if you can’t become a master at it? Couldn’t you just be informed on the topic?
All knowledge is useful. Not all knowledge is necessary at any particular moment That means you should learn all of it you can (within your innate capability) store it, organize it and use it when necessary. And knowledge can be categorized by anything. How to catch and throw a football and what kinds of plays should be called when, traveling to another place, playing a harmonica, how to use basic tools in a wood shop, the arguments between Einstein and Bohr and that fateful meeting at Solvay where Einstein got stumped but could still finish Bohr’s math for him when Bohr got stuck and couldn’t finish his own argument mathematically. You never know when something you learned might be useful.
I’m not a genius. And I’ve been around them so I know, some of them have been people I’ve managed over the years. The truth is that successful geniuses work their tails off. That means that someone like me who is a comparatively deficient can get pretty damn ok results by working my tail off. And that also means that if you are real smart but you think you can outwit the world and put in less effort you’ll pass up a lot of good things you could offer the world to satisfy your self-deceit. Maybe it’s my blue collar upbringing.
Ritual is important for humans. It doesn’t need to be religious, but that helps too for me. Process is ritual. getting things right by doing it over and over again is ritual. Accept ritual. Rules and guard rails are there to keep you on the road. learn them, use them, then move beyond them when the time is right and throwing them out allows you to achieve a greater thing.
Most people never accomplished anything on their own. Occasionally a person’s singular effort may get something done as a part of a bigger whole. Honestly, unless you’re a hermit in a forest in Siberia or Canada, you will work with other people to get things done. My experience is that having a group of motivated people trying to achieve the same goal and agreeing to the same values is the best way to be successful. That’s true for family, work, church, scouts, baseball, anything. People need people.
Don’t give up too easily. Don’t get flustered. It’s ok to vent, but then move on. I think of Washington, Churchill, Grant, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Einstein, Gandhi. Remember the big picture, the goal, and not just what happened in front of you. Look for opportunity when things look they aren’t going your way. Maybe you are headed southeast and you can turn directly south. Maybe you can settle for 70% of what you want today, and come back another day for the other 30%. Just keep moving.
Anyway, so there’s my rambling summary of my first 48 years. And the start of my next 48 or so. I think it’s going to be really cool and I’m glad you’re all moving along with me here and there.