Monthly Archives: December 2012

Experiments in Productivity

On September 25, 2011, I had a good day.  Sure, I’ve had plenty since then, but this one stood out as particularly fun and productive.  In fact, here’s my Facebook post from that day:

Very fun day: Morning flea market with Katie and Ned, learned to play Dominion in the afternoon, played 20's jazz in the evening with Blackbird Society Orchestra, stopped by Triumph Open Mic afterwards to play the solo sousaphone version of Bad Romance.

After I got done at the open mic, I ran into a trumpet player busking on the street.  I was carrying my sousaphone, so he stopped me and we talked for a bit.  I brought up that I had been getting more gigs that year, and he told me to just keep booking them.  As I walked back to my car, I rekindled for the first time in many years the idea of making music my career instead of something I did on the side.

I’ve had a full-time job since 2004, before which I was living with my parents, touring occasionally, working temp jobs, and playing lots of gigs for free.  It had started to become such a dead-end burden, that I knew I needed to start supporting myself financially.  I took a job as a computer trainer and learned a ton about technology and education, leading me to the job I have today.  It has its ups and downs; it can be really boring, but it’s also fulfilling to reach out and help so many people.

I continued to play music for years after that on the side, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I really started getting more steady work as a musician; not enough to support myself, but some nice money on the side.  It was also beginning to conflict with my nine-to-five life, with late nights and early mornings. September 25, 2011 made me consider that this thing I was doing on the side was much more fun than what I did during the day, and might even be sustainable.

So I started the process of exploring life as a full-time musician.  I spoke to several musician friends for insight into how they make it work (which I chronicled here, along with more details about September 25, 2011), with mixed results.  I started planning out what my life would look like as a member of the self-employed.  I hired a consultant, Mike Ketner from Departure Consulting, to work on the marketing and entrepreneurial components of being a full-time musician.  All of these have been great strides in figuring out what my possibilities are, even though I still feel like I’m early in the process.

This week I took another great step in this process.  Currently I’m on winter break from my full-time job, and I have been since last week.  I scheduled off for the rest of this week as well, and rather than relaxing and doing nothing, my goal is to simulate the day-to-day existence of not having a full-time job: will I actually be productive when I don’t have the structure of a full-time job.

This has been a problem for me in the past, but it’s been a long time since I’ve actively tried it.  I tend to be very hard on myself when I don’t follow through with my plans, so rather than looking at this as a boot camp in accomplishment, I’m looking at it as an experiment in productivity.  When we experiment, we form hypotheses and work to prove or disprove them.  Ideally, we can remove the emotional baggage of the situation and just try to see what works.  If it doesn’t work, we change the methods and try again another time.

So far, I’ve had mixed results.  Each night I write down the things I want to accomplish for the next day.

To Do

To Do List on my private stationary

A couple of important things in here.  First of all, note that I’m planning “rest” in here.  This is partially because I am on vacation, and I do need to rest and recuperate from work, but also because I know that resting is an important part of my life, and something I at least need permission to do and at most need to plan into my day.  There will be plenty of times when rest is not an option; while it is, I need to make it happen, as I believe firmly it is vital to focused productivity.

The tuba practice is something I’m breaking into small pieces.  I need a 20-30 minute warmup to be in optimal shape to play.  When I was in college, I used to go straight from that into the material I was working on.  These days, I find that it is a mental drain to do that, so I want to give myself time away from the instrument to recover before coming back later to work on more specific material.  This has been working well so far.

Some of it might seem basic.  Shower and stretch?  Really?  I find that if I don’t plan to do that early, I put it off until later.  There’s a part of me that feels like I can’t start my day until I shower and do my 15 minute yoga routine.  So I’m putting them in early so that I can feel better about doing other things whenever I need to.

This particular day was ambitious.  I didn’t get to the songwriting planning, and I never made it to the open mic (partially because I have been struggling with a cough for about 2 weeks now).  I’m trying not to get too upset about this though.  After all, it is an experiment, and I’m looking forward to changing things up later this week to see if I can do things better when I approach them differently.

The new year looms, and with it come the slew of resolutions.  So if you’re looking to try to make changes in your life, I heartily recommend the experimental approach.  Don’t vow to make big striking changes.  Instead, vow to experiment and explore the different possibilities in your life.  When something doesn’t work (“damnit, I hate going to the gym!”), don’t look at it as your failure to keep to your resolution.  Instead, it’s just an indication of something that isn’t working for you at the moment.  Try a myriad of alternatives, think of new ways to accomplish what you’re desiring, and keep it light.  You may be in line for a Happy New Year after all.

Before I sign off, I want to list a few of this year’s achievements that I’m proud of:

69 gigs total
16 solo Neon and Shy shows
Released my debut CD
Recorded on 3 different albums
Played with about 5 new ensembles this year
Played my first Easter, NYE, and July 4 gigs in about 12 years
Featured in Philadelphia Inquirer
Began this here blog
Began the Sound Decisions Podcast

And what to expect for next year:

More Sound Decisions podcasts
Finding a venue that truly appreciate the magic that is Neon and Shy
Another big project (TBD)
The beginnings of my next album

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Game of Resource Development Versus Utilization

I hope it’s not too much like saying “I like fun” to say that I like games.  Growing up, my family had a slew of board and card games we would play, supplemented by my father’s custom cardboard board games.  My brother ran Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in our den; who cares if my Gnome Illusionist was the least useful character.  The addition of a Commodore 64 to our household may have been one of the most impactful events of my life (ok, ok, puberty is a close second).  To this day, I still play a ton of games, namely Magic the Gathering, online Flash games, Big Boggle, and the occasional tabletop game when I can amass the people for it.

Commodore 64 versus Puberty

Why are my floppies 5 1/4 inches?

As stated above, one of the reasons for liking games is that they’re fun.  I don’t want to suck the fun out of it by saying each game is also an educational experience, but I have found a lot of parallels between certain games and situations I encounter in the outside world.  They apply specifically to games which involve developing resources (money, products, energy), and then utilizing them (buying properties, selling products, spending energy to accomplish goals).  In those sorts of games, there’s always a tricky balance between amassing your resources and using them.

The balance involves having enough resources to do the things you want to do, while investing enough time to develop your resource pool.  If you spend too much time developing your resources, the game often ends with your owning a ton of the tools to win the game without having ever done anything with them.  If you spend too much energy on the utilization of the resources without building the infrastructure first, your opponents will often fall behind at first, but then surge forward faster than you can keep up at the end.  Like I said, it’s a tricky balance, and it’s often the most important thing to figure out when learning a new game (ok, ok, puberty is a close second).

Recently I learned a new tabletop game called Puerto Rico, which is all about developing and using resources.  The game takes place in Puerto Rico back in the time when ships had sails.  The players take the role of plantation owners hiring colonists to grow various crops which they can then sell for doubloons or for points to win the game.  They can use the doubloons to purchase buildings that make it easier to do any of the in-game actions, or to give more victory points at the end of the game.  It’s a complex and fun game with a lot of different decision points.

Cat on board game table

Lucius wants to be mayor of San Juan.

It also exemplifies my point about resource development versus utilization.  There are so many different areas to develop; you have to acquire settlements, man them with colonists, and earn money.  There are also so many ways to utilize the resources you’re developing; you can sell your goods for money, ship them to gain victory points, and purchase buildings.  Even when you purchase the buildings, you have the option to buy buildings that will allow you to produce resources more efficiently or buildings that will allow you to acquire more victory points.  The game can end suddenly, so you don’t want to be caught with tons of goods that were never sold or shipped.  But if you spend all your time acquiring victory points, you won’t have enough products or doubloons to go for the best buildings in the game.  And all along the way, you need to make sure you have enough colonists to produce the resources you’re trying to get.  It makes my head spin, but I’m slowly learning a strategy that works for this game.

I love to play online flash games, as they have the advantage of being both engaging and free to play.  One of the better ones I’ve come across is a game called Rebuild 2, a turn-based zombie apocalypse survival game.  That should be enough to sell you right there.  In the game, you play a crew of hold-outs from the zombie invasion, barely scraping by in an urban landscape.  Your goal is to rebuild civilization, which can be accomplished a number of ways (drafting a constitution, curing the zombie disease, escaping in a helicopter).  Before you can do that though, you’ll need to find refugees, build farms, perform research, expand your territory, keep your population happy, and of course, blow up some zombies.  The whole game has a creepy atmosphere with one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard, and it has enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat for hours at a time.

The first thing you notice in the game is the conflict between having people join your camp and producing enough food to support them.  In fact, you start the game at a loss; your group is eating more food than you can produce.  You have to quickly begin to clear the zombies from surrounding farms and expand your territory.  But as your territory gets bigger, you need more people in order to claim more territory, which results in more food required.  This tension is one of the critical ones in the game, and one you have to keep an eye on all the time.  I found this to greatly add to the sensation of desperation as one of the few surviving people in a zombie landscape.

At the same time you’re balancing the food versus population issue, you have to continuously improve your defenses, as the zombies get more powerful as the game progresses.  If you’re not careful, you’ll have sent all of your military units out to reclaim a building just as the zombies decide to storm your walls.  You also have to develop builders, leaders, scientists, and scavengers, and you have to decide when to stop training them and when to start using them.  Stop training too soon, and the structures take too long to build.  Give them too much time, and your camp will not have enough of the defenses they need when the zombies attack.  It’s a great game, and a great example of deciding between resource development and utilizing those resources.

There are many more games that have this dynamic that I don’t have time to get to: Magic the Gathering, Dominion, the entire Tower Defense genre of flash games, and one of my new favorite games, 7 Wonders.  They all have a different way to acquire that balance between building up your resources and using them.  Even the vicious and evil game of Monopoly has such a dynamic.  Buy your hotels too soon, and you won’t have enough money to upgrade your more expensive properties, which earn more money.  Wait too long, and your opponents will have bought hotels that bankrupt you before you can buy hotels of your own.

wiggum

How do those Parker Brothers sleep at night?

Recently I have noticed the parallel between this gaming strategy and elements outside of the realm of games; for instance, learning a musical instrument.  When we learn an instrument, we know that we’ll have to spend time practicing and getting to know the instrument.  So how much should we learn, or how good should we be, before we decide to perform in public?  If you spend too much time just in your room alone practicing, then you don’t get the experience or the thrill of performing live.  But if you get out there too soon, you may not have enough of a repertoire to put on an engaging performance.  Or you might not be technically prepared enough to do well.  Either of these can lead to a negative experience which can be discouraging for continuing the instrument.  You need to find the balance between learning enough on the instrument to feel confident about what you’re performing, and having the confidence to decide you’ve learned enough and are ready to play out.

Another one that I struggle with in my life is web design.  I teach Dreamweaver regularly in my job, and I’ve been writing in HTML since 1996.  And yet, when I think of offering my web design services for hire, I’m always afraid that I haven’t learned enough.  I keep telling myself that once I learn a little more about it, I’ll be ready to offer my skills for a fee.  However, I know I can keep telling myself that for years and years and never feel like I’m good enough.  At some point, I have to switch over from resource development to actually reaping the rewards from what I’ve developed.

So these games, in addition to being fun in themselves, can give us practice with many skills we need to utilize in our lives.  We have so many resources to develop: money, recognition, skills, knowledge.  And we have an infinite variety of ways to spend those resources.  Understanding the balance between developing and using the tools in our lives can only lead to higher productivity and enjoyment.  And of course, higher productivity can lead to more free time, which gives us more time to… play more games!

Depression and the People You Love

You can call it a defect in my personality, but my first instinct after learning of the recent shooting in Newtown, CT and reading the frenzied responses was to make light of those responses.  Not the heartfelt expressions of sympathy or sadness, but the immediate calls for arming the school officials (I did read at least one response that stated this never would have happened if the principal, teachers, and lunch lady would have had guns on them).  I have only the smallest feeling of shame for jumping back into levity so soon after a tragedy.  What else could I do?

This horrific event has brought up two big issues: gun control and mental illness.  I have some opinions on both of them, but one clearly weighs on my mind more than the other.  So if you’re looking for a discussion about gun control, I merely direct you to The Onion, which said it better than I ever could.  Today I want to talk about mental illness and how it is perceived in our country and perhaps the world.  I don’t want to talk about it in terms of policy.  In fact, I can sum up my opinion in one sentence: Everyone should have access to quality mental healthcare, and anything less is indicative of a society’s gross inadequacy.  Instead, I want to talk about it in very personal terms, and I want to focus on the only type of mental health issue that I really feel qualified to discuss.  I want to talk about depression, how to deal with it if you are suffering, and how to help somebody you know who is suffering.  Because fortunately, there are many correlations between how we can approach the many types of mental illness, and understanding one facet can open up the understanding of many.

Let me get this out of the way first.  I have struggled with depression for at least ten years.  I say at least, because I probably suffered from it before that, but was unaware of it.  While it’s something that I still deal with from time to time, a combination of therapy and medication has allowed me to overcome it to the extent that I am able to be consistently happy and productive.  I’ll never forget the moment when, after treating it directly for several months, I had the epiphany that I am capable of being happy and feeling good about myself and my life.  Until that point, I had resigned myself to leading an unhappy life, since that was “just the way it is.” Having been up and down with depression over the years, I feel like I’m an expert in knowing what the symptoms are, and more importantly knowing how the symptoms feel.

While there aren’t many absolutes in how different people experience depression, there are three components I have found in my experience that seem to define it best: isolation, hopelessness, and self-loathing.  That brings us to one of the more peculiar and distressing components about it, which is that it is an illness that hinders you from helping yourself.  The feeling of isolation makes it hard to reach out and connect with someone who can help you.  The hopelessness makes it feel like there’s no point in getting help, since the problem can’t be solved.  The self-loathing tells you that getting better is not something you deserve.  In that sense, your mind is pitted against your best interests, and it is far too easy to be pulled in, unable to escape.

The self-loathing aspect of it is particularly disturbing to me.  I was able to recognize that I was feeling terrible about myself.  And I was also able to recognize that those feelings and the way they manifest are repulsive to other people, and to myself as well.  If you’ve ever spent time around someone who is depressed, their self-denigration and lack of motivation can be off-putting and downright infuriating.  My reaction was often to spare my close friends the discomfort of being near me, since that way I couldn’t alienate them.  I ended up just pushing them further away by not bringing them into my life.

Here’s where our cultural approach to mental illness can be harmful.  I find a pervasive attitude in our culture that equates depression with weakness or lack of will.  A clinical diagnosis of depression is far less tangible than a diagnosis for something like diabetes or cancer, so it’s too easy to treat it as something non-existent or, pardon the expression, all in your head.  As I stated above, the nature of depression is that you often feel that you don’t deserve to get better.  So if you believe that you’re not good enough to get better, and the voices in American culture are telling you that you’re not strong enough to “snap out of it,” the feelings of self-loathing get compounded and can lead to someone hurting themselves.

So let me be blunt about this.  Depression is real.  If you cannot fathom how or why someone could be depressed, you are exceedingly fortunate.  But just in the same way that you needed extra help with algebra while some of your peers sailed right through it, different people experience life differently.  It is narrow-minded to think that just because you don’t experience it that it doesn’t exist.

If someone in your life is experiencing signs of depression, such as hopelessness, aversion to social situations, or persistent sadness, there are a few things you can say and do to help them in their situation.  First of all, listen as best as you can.  Let them understand they’re being heard and that you’re sympathetic to how they’re feeling.  This is not the time to be problem-solving.  I remember being told during a particularly low point that I just needed to get out more, which was not only wholly unproductive, but hurtful.  I wanted to ask the person, “you actually think I don’t want to get out more?  You think I like feeling like this?”  Listen and empathize.  Probably the most helpful thing that can be said is a sincere, “that sounds like it’s really hard.”  It can be good to follow it up with, “it’s ok.  You’re going to be able to feel better.  You won’t always feel this way.”  Again, offer support, but don’t push any solutions at this point unless specifically asked.

I say listen as best as you can, because in our relationships with friends, families, and partners, we have complex roles.  We go out and have good times with our friends; we experience complex family dynamics with our relatives; we entwine intimacy into our relationships with our partners.  Whereas it’s important in these roles to provide support for our loved ones, at a certain point it can harm our relationships as well.  Sometimes in listening to the issues our loved ones are dealing with, our own desires and roles can get muddled in the process.  As a listener, you need to be aware of how their issues are affecting you also, and you need to be able to catch the breaking point before it hurts either of you.  Sometimes that means saying at some point, “It sounds like you’re having a lot of difficulty right now.  Would you consider talking to a third party about it?”

To me, the purpose of a therapist is to provide the support and help you need without any of the dual roles that come with friends, families and partners.  For someone who has never seen a therapist before, the act of talking to someone about your problems, coupled with the isolation, hopelessness, and self-loathing inherent in depression, can be paralyzing.  It also doesn’t help that because the existence of mental illness is often challenged, the visiting of a therapist to help find a solution is often perceived as a pseudo-science.  In suggesting finding a therapist, I have found it helpful to not be pushy, but to be casual and be clear that this is a potential solution to the problems the person is having.  It can take time for someone to come around to the idea that this might be good for them.  With one close friend, we talked about it on and off for about two years before she decided it was worthwhile to try.

Medication for depression also seems to be a controversial subject, though I’m not sure why.  You have hyperthyroidism?  You take medication for it to make life bearable.  I have depression?  I take medication for it to make life bearable.  No one is challenging the sufferer of hyperthyroidism to deal with it, or telling them that if they just worked a little harder they’d be able to overcome it.  The truth is that there are drugs that help me, so I take them.  It’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not an indication that I’m covering up my problems.  When a friend recently made the statement about someone she knew, “well, she’s on anti-depressants, so you know she’s not doing well,” I was disheartened and actually insulted.  Shouldn’t it be: “well, she was feeling depressed, so she found the motivation and strength to do something about it.”  Yes, I’m sure drugs are often over-prescribed, but sometimes they’re also just “prescribed.”

Finally, if you are suffering from depression, I also say this is real, in that it is something that is actually taking place in your brain.  I believe you when you say you’re feeling alone and lost and you don’t think that it can ever get any better.  I understand and I empathize, but I also know from experience that it is possible to find a way to not feel this way.  Things can get better, your life can change, and misery does not have to be the constant backdrop of your life.  With the help of the loved ones in your life, you can find a therapist, a medication plan, a diet, an outlook, or whatever it takes to have the rich and satisfying life that you deserve.  That we all deserve.

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