Encouragement

It was a hot and humid summer day.  My hands were sweating and it wasn’t just because of the heat.  It was my first job and I was terrified.  I had been hired by Calvin, a local farmer, to help mow and bale hay on his fields.  He had hundreds of acres, some cattle, horses and a barn.  We were standing in a field with tall grass that was nearly up to my armpits.  I was listening intently to his instructions.  Parked before us was a huge yellow beast.  The enormous tractor had towering wheels that were as tall as my scrawny 12-year-old self.  I kept thinking, “This is a really bad idea!”

“You can do it!  Climb up,” Calvin said enthusiastically with a broad smile.  I climbed up the yellow mountain and sat in the well-worn black leather seat.  I could hear and feel my heart pounding in my ears.  He climbed up next to me.  “Now step on the clutch and turn the key.”   He pointed at the big metal petal on the left.

My leg was shaking uncontrollably as I stepped on the clutch.  The pedal went down with a loud satisfying clunk.  My relief was short lived as the pedal pushed back at me with enormous force.  It reminded me of one of those spring riders you could sit on as a kid at the McDonalds playground.  Just about the time you thought you had wrestled it to the ground, it would whiplash you back up with incredible speed.  The same happened with the pedal.  It literally shot me out of the seat.  Calvin burst out laughing.  I grabbed the steering wheel with my sweaty hands. Using that leverage, I was able to mash the pedal down again.  It stayed!  “Good job!” he exclaimed, “Now turn the key.”  I did.  The entire beast roared to life.  I was somewhat relieved to think that my nervous shaking was suddenly masked by the bone jarring violent rattling of this yellow dragon.  Calvin began working a lever on the console that revved up the engine.  “You want to set it at this RPM,” he said, pointing at the tachometer.  It smoothed out.

“Now, put it in first gear,” Calvin motioned to the gear shift, “and let out the clutch slowly.”  My brain refused to accept those instructions.  I managed the gear shift, but there was absolutely no way there would be any “slowly” about my ability to let out the clutch.  The death grip I had on the steering wheel had turned my knuckles white.  “You can do this!” he coaxed.  The next part is a bit blurry in my memory.  I tried.  My foot edged back slowly, shuddering and shaking, until my muscles finally surrendered.  Pow!  Kaboom! The leviathan leaped forward nearly hurtling Calvin and I off the beast.  But thankfully, it stopped as suddenly as it began.  I had popped the clutch and killed the engine.  I was convinced I had also just emptied my entire bladder in the well-worn leather chair.  My face was flush and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.  I was sure I broke it and Calvin was going to be angry.  I looked over at Calvin.  He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.  I laughed too.

“Well, son, we are going to need to build up the muscles in those skinny legs of yours before we can get much further,” Calvin said with a grin.  With a glimmer in his eye, he added, “You will be driving that thing before you know it!”  I was given instructions to sit on the yellow beast and just work on pushing down the clutch until I could do it smoothly.  “I’ll come back for you at lunch.”  Calvin jumped off and headed to the barn.

Needless to say, I was relieved.  I followed his instructions until I could execute it without failure.  He was right.  It wouldn’t be long before I was mowing and baling hay.  I worked all summer and even returned to help the following summer.  Calvin made a big impression on me.  He taught me how to drive a tractor, but more importantly, he taught me about encouragement and trust.  I think back to those moments where I was afraid, uncertain and unskilled, yet I had a friendly guide who believed in me.  He firmly and patiently encouraged me to go beyond my ability and do something greater, something I didn’t even believe I could do myself.  He taught me to face my fear and turn setbacks along the way into humor and teachable moments.  

I’ll always remember that big yellow beast, my somewhat soiled pants and those dusty hot summers on the farm.  But most of all, I will remember Calvin.  He taught me the power of encouragement and trust.  Be a Calvin.  Encourage someone today!

Sunday Scaries

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love… Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” – Steve Jobs

Sunday scaries, anyone?  This weekend I happened to come across an article that talked about how the majority of workers and students are often seized by anxiety, dread and sadness that the weekend is ending and Monday is on the way. The uncertainty and the dread of the new week can effectively consume and ruin the whole Sunday.  Have you ever experienced that?  I have.  It can be something as simple as, “Oh no, I need to get ready for that thing on Monday!”  Or it can be, “I wonder what new monster or demon is waiting for me in my inbox or possessed some time slot on my calendar?” 

Living for the weekend?  I have fond memories of a security guard in one of our offices who loved to remind everyone on their way to the elevator, how many days we had until Friday.  His sympathy for the first of the week and growing enthusiasm past “hump day” was simply delightful.  I always looked forward to seeing his smiling face, regardless of the day.  He was channeling the feeling that so many of us felt, counting down the days until the freedom of the weekend.  But, if we measure our quality of life by the 2 of 7 days, we are only living 29% of our potential.  

I love working for a company that creates happiness.  What we do is great work.  The magic we ship delights, informs, entertains and inspires people all over the world.  More importantly, I love working with our amazing teams.  So, why do we face the Sunday scaries?  I noticed that there were things I could do to minimize if not remove those scaries.  I’m still learning and adjusting, but I wanted to share with you some of the tricks I found to help make the workweek more like the weekend.

Plan.  The biggest spike of anxiety for me was a sense of being unprepared for the week.  At first, I started logging in on the weekend to prep for the week. This was a bad idea.  Not only were the scaries robbing my joy on Sunday, I was suddenly working 7 days a week and setting a terrible example for my team.  I changed.  I started investing time on Friday, including booking time for myself to go through the following week.  I look through and adjust meetings.  I create new meetings and add planning time to give myself time to review each day before it gets started. If I need to work on a project the following week, I will create a “placeholder” template document or start a list of “to do” items.  I also ensure I create space on my schedule for the following week to start the day with reflection, review and preparation. 

Transform dread into anticipation. I try to schedule some “fun” activities each week, and especially on Monday.  I also realized I was overbooking myself, not just on the weekdays but on the weekends as well.  I had to learn to be compassionate with myself, pacing my activities and treating myself with some leisure time.  Those things along with the planning, made an incredible difference for me.  I rarely dread Monday now and even have some sense of positive anticipation, wanting to dive into things I am ready to take on.  To be fair, there are still moments the scaries return, but they are fewer and easier to defeat.

How do you deal with Sunday scaries?  I would love to hear your own experiences and any discoveries you have made.  We are part of something special.  Let’s keep doing great things, and help vanquish the Sunday scaries along the way!

Mind the Gap

The London Underground, commonly known as “The Tube” is the oldest rapid transit system in the world.  A few years ago, during a summer before the pandemic, my family and I made our way to London for a vacation.  Our excursions almost always required at least one ride on the Tube.  We absolutely loved it.  It was incredibly convenient!  With just a little practice and a route guidance app, you can get just about anywhere in London with very little effort.

Anyone who has traveled the Underground quickly becomes familiar with the public service announcement, “Mind the gap!”  A loud audio warning is accompanied by visual signs to remind Underground passengers to take caution crossing the gap between the train doors and the station platforms.  For some of the older lines and stations this can be a significant gap which can include nefarious vertical steps.  Much to my chagrin, somewhere along my journey, my less than graceful physical skills caused me to bump my toe on one of those vertical gaps. I stumbled out onto the platform.  A friendly fellow passenger, concerned about my maneuver, smiled and repeated, “mind the gap.”  We both laughed and I shook my head walking off with my much-embarrassed family. 

Life is full of gaps.  Some of those gaps are risks that we must manage for ourselves and others.  Sometimes we see them and raise the alarm.  Other times, those warning signs are broadcast by experts.  Put on your seat belt.  Hot, don’t touch!  Wear safety goggles and other personal protection equipment (PPE).  Get vaccinated.  Walk carefully on wet slippery floors.  Don’t fly your drone around high voltage power lines.  

Another familiar public service announcement on the Underground is, “See it, say it, sorted.”  It’s a call to action to all passengers to report unusual activity to keep everyone safe.  As technologist, we are often in the front row seat to see systemic problems, reliability issues, security weaknesses, and the like.  Be on the lookout for those dangers and gaps.  Raise the alarm if you see a problem.  Often the issues are not just technical problems, but issues with process, support and usability.  Those are important too.  Improving inhumane experiences or user frustrating processes is like an ancient magic that unleashes incredible power and potential.  It also helps clumsy dads exit the Tube safely without bruising their egos.

As we journey from point to point on this adventure, we will spot gaps.  Our attention and expertise are needed to ensure we can continue to ship value… better, faster, safer and happier for everyone.  Mind the gap!

Direction

“Direction is much more important than speed.” – Anonymous

Two weeks ago, I sent out my update from Walker Lake in Minnesota where we were visiting with family.  We were in the middle of our two-week 6,000-mile driving adventure across the US.  We passed through California, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.  Whew!  That’s a lot of distance to travel by car, but thankfully we were able to travel at 70-80 mph most of the way.

With a family of five, as you can imagine, there were plenty of stops along the way.  For the most part, I have a good sense of direction, but the thing about a long drive is that the roads, exits, hotels, and fuel stations all start to look alike after a while.  If you’re not careful, you may end up getting turned around and going the wrong way.  I recall one particular bio-break stop where I ended up on the wrong onramp, heading East instead of West.  Thankfully there was a quick exit and turnaround.  If I had made that miscalculation in one of the Dakotas, I may have been stuck on that road going the wrong direction for 50 miles!

I love going fast!  Seeing the world move quickly beneath you as you arrive at your destination is exciting and rewarding.  But when you make a directional error and end up 100 miles off course all that excitement morphs into a sick feeling of failure.  It occurs to me how much that applies to our work, projects, business and life.  Sure, there are measured risks we must take when we need to explore new directions, but most of the time we can quickly assemble enough data to select the right bearing.  That’s engineering.  My dad used to say, “Son, with engineering you assume a point of beginning and proceed with great accuracy.”  Like the scientific method, you begin with a thoughtful plan, act, measure and make corrections.  My recent road trip reminded me how important it was that we plan, measure and correct when the vector is off.  Reaching the final destination demands that discipline.

What does your compass say?  Are you headed in the right direction?  Pull out the map and measure your position and trajectory.  Are you going where you want to go or do you hear the GPS suggesting a “next legal U-turn”?  It’s never too late to alter course, especially if your goal is to arrive at the right destination.  I challenge you all this week to think about your destination and the direction you need to go to get there. 

Bitter or Better?

“You can be bitter or you can be better.” – Alice Zahnow

I love getting a slice of lemon or lime with my iced water.  Once I asked for a water with lime and the waiter brought out a water with a strong shot of lime essence. It surprised me and was extremely bitter.  I couldn’t drink it.  Thankfully the table was equipped with some sugary sweeteners.  Suddenly, the bitter water turned into a delightful drink.  

So much of the time, what you bring to a situation makes all the difference.  Imperfect things with a positive ingredient can become something even better.  As we have been traveling and celebrating my mother-in-law’s life, it occurred to me that one of her favorite sayings applies to so much of life, “You can be bitter or you can be better”.  Disappointment, loss, change, hurts, worries and fears can all become opportunities to become better.  The crucial ingredient is you.  I recognize that we are experiencing a lot of change in our lives, family and work.  How you react, the attitude you bring, the faith you have, the actions you take, all determine your destiny, how we do as a people and the impact you can make on the world.

We only have a tiny amount of years on this planet. Don’t waste it.  Things happen to or around us all the time.  We can be bitter, or we can be better.  You only need to change the “I”.

See You Real Soon

“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

All lands, all attractions! With last week’s Disneyland Paris re-opening, once again the sun no longer sets on the Magic Kingdom. It’s hard to believe it has been over a year (17 months) since we could say that. And, as vaccination coverage increases and the COVID numbers improve, we are starting to see more restrictions lifted and some levels of “return to normal.”

My youngest is the last one in our family to be fully vaccinated. Tomorrow marks two weeks after her 2nd shot and we feel the relief and freedom that can bring. We are looking forward to traveling again and seeing more friends and family in person. While required safety measures at times, quarantining and isolation is not what humans are built for. It is amazing how well we adapted to make things work. We successfully deployed fully remote work. We adopted safe, masked and social distanced ways to safely and caringly pick up necessities. Things like Zoom and FaceTime became brilliant and sometimes lamented tools to stay connected with family and friends as well as work. But in the end, we all felt that missing part that even those of us who are introverted suddenly discovered we needed… in-person social interaction.

Humans are made to be with other humans. As a family of all sorts, strengths and sizes, as intelligent beings with our unique perspectives, personalities and pet-peeves, it turns out, we all need each other. I’m looking forward to setting sail once again on many more in-person voyages.

Hope to see you all real soon!

Words Matter

“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” —Maya Angelou

How do you visualize?  If you close your eyes and think about home, family and friends, can you see them in your mind’s eye?  I remember having an in-depth conversation with Ed Catmull who confessed that he can’t visualize mental images at all.  Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images.  But that’s right, Ed Catmull, the scientist who revolutionized computer 3D graphics and co-founded Pixar, has a blind mind’s eye.  It’s a condition called aphantasia.  Ed conducted a survey of artist and production teams across the studio and discovered he was not alone.  In fact, some of the world’s best animators have aphantasia as well.  Glen Keane, who created Ariel (The Little Mermaid), also has no visual imagery.  

How we represent our world in our minds does vary, person to person.  Some of us visualize, some of us don’t.  But we all model the world around us in a way that helps us interact with each other, relate to things and make decisions.  Over time, we construct mental models that help us filter what we see, hear and feel. We build synaptic short cuts that prevent us from being overwhelmed with sensory experiences and our daily work.  We enter our mind palace, even if it can’t be seen, and think about concepts, plan projects, solve problems and even practice interactions with each other.  How do we do that?  Have you noticed?  Well, similar to you reading this today, we do that through “words”.  Now maybe those words are symbols, lists or concepts, but they are a collection of mental Lego blocks that we use to construct our mental reality. How many of those atomic units we have collected and what they are, makes up our mental vocabulary. 

When I was learning Spanish in high school, I remember the moment when I had gained enough understanding of the language to begin creating mental models in Spanish. Up till that point, I realized my mental models were all in English and I was passing all of those models through a “translation function” in my mind instead of thinking natively in Spanish.  “Gran mesa roja” became atomic in my representation of a big red table. I never achieved full model (immersive thinking in Spanish) but it gave me the insight into how we think.  Words and patterns of words are the building blocks of how we see and interact with the world around us.

Words matter.  Because words make up our perception of the world, the words we use affect us and those around us.  How we think, evaluate and relate with things is shaped by our words.  Sometimes the words and phrases that we collect and use to build mental models can be harmful.  For example, technological phrases like “blacklist” and “whitelist” are often used to denote things that should be denied or allowed.  While the connotation of “whitelist” is generally positive, something that you want included and accepted, the inference of “blacklist” is predominately negative, something that should be shunned, blocked or denied.  The general concepts make sense, but the words used can subconsciously create a mental association that anything “black” is bad, negative, a threat or an object that should be denied or avoided.  Tragically, this can shape our model such that a “black person” is unintentionally connected with the same connotation.  This is the danger.  Words shape our reality and words can project unintended meaning or reality onto others just by simple association.

I’m proud to say that as part of our inclusive efforts, Disney technology leadership is taking on this issue so that we can level up.  Technical words and phrases that are culturally insensitive or can threaten our inclusive efforts will be replaced with more inclusive terms.  In many cases, these are actually better descriptors for the intended concepts anyway.  Using phrases like “allow-list” or “deny-list” not only encapsulates the concept but describes it as well.  Now, to be fair, I know this isn’t an easy transition.  A lot of these words are deeply ingrained in the industry and our mental models.  But it is the right thing to do.  We don’t want unintended association to negatively impact us or any of our fellow team members.  Everyone is a welcome member of our human family and we are willing to reshape our language and mental models to help enforce that love for each other.

Join me in helping raise awareness on this issue.  Call me out if I accidentally use words that are non-inclusive.  To reshape tomorrow, we need to challenge each other, our teams, our vendors and ourselves to use this more inclusive language.  If you have any ideas that might help, please let me know.  We can create a better more inclusive world.  Sometimes it is as easy as changing one word at a time.

Embracing Grief

“What is grief, if not love persevering?” – Vision

I was standing outside the tent addressing the small crowd of family and friends that had gathered by my dad’s graveside. The June sun was hiding behind the clouds but some of the rays glistened off of the nearby fence surrounding the cemetery.  I opened with my dad’s favorite joke, “Do you know why cemeteries have fences? It’s because people are dying to get in there!”  He loved that joke.  I went on to talk about my dad, forever the engineer, who taught me to “think ahead,” plan, tackle any problem and always leave things better than you found then.  I miss him.  That was 2015 yet even to this day, grief of his loss visits me.

Grief is a tricky thing.  For those of you who have lost loved ones, you know how it doesn’t play by the rules.  It will wash over you at the most inopportune times.  It isn’t logical.  It would perplex, frustrate and annoy me.  I would wish it away but that usually meant it would only hide for the moment to build more energy for the next unannounced round.  Instead, I have come to realize that grief is not an enemy or adversary, it is a friend.  It is the echo of love that endures the separation of the source and object of that affection.  It is the mind and spirit refreshing that cherished connection and celebrating the memory of that loved one.  It is, as Vision from Marvel’s WandaVision put it, “love persevering.”

As we bid farewell to my wife’s mother a week ago, I am reminded how bad we are at taking care of ourselves during sorrow and loss.  I wanted to jump back into work, bury myself in tasks.  But instead, we spent time as a family going through my mother-in-law’s affairs.  Sorting, cleaning and remembering.  Sure, there was sadness, but there was also times of laughter and happiness.  I’m glad we did that.

So many of you reached out with sympathy, kind words, encouragement and even help. Thank you! It was overwhelming and encouraging. I know many of you have also suffered the loss of loved ones in recent years and even shared your own journeys with me.  Our human journey is not without suffering.  This recent chapter in my life reminds me how important it is to give ourselves time, permission and care to remember, to grieve and even to heal.  My advice to all of you who have suffered loss, and for the rest who will, make sure you give yourself that time and grace to mend.  Embrace the fog of grief and welcome the memories, no matter how difficult they may be to bear.  They are just visiting friends, reminding you that love does not die, it perseveres.  Cherish it!