Ch-Ch-Ch-Chaaanges!

31 May, 2013 at 10:24 am

change-architect-sign1

Bless me blogreaders, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 months since my last post.

I’ve been a genuinely very busy guy lately, so I won’t apologize, but I hate to neglect this space. I aim to spend more time here in the coming months as I get back to more personal writing again. I left off on that novel draft just shy of 50,000 words back in February. So close to crossing the big milestone set by NaNoWriMo. And yet…so far.

So what’s been happening? Well, today is officially my last day as Director of Community Relations for the Society for Technical Communication. It’d be 3 years on the job this November, and it’s been a fascinating ride. I’ve learned a lot, spent a lot of time developing my skills in relationships management, corporate communications, marketing, design, and diplomacy, among other things.

I’m a better man for it. No doubt about it. But it was time to move on.

In early 2012, I convinced my wife Jamie to leave Long & Foster real estate and go solo. She had already obtained her Real Estate Broker’s License in Arizona and Virginia, and I couldn’t see any reason for her not to capitalize on that. When you work for a big brokerage, you pay out lots of money on commission splits and desk & marketing fees, and when you’re already working on commission only, that’s a tough row to hoe. If you have a broker’s license, far better to do it your own way and bring home 100% of the split.

So on St. Patrick’s Day of last year, Home Source Realty was born.

What started as a part-time job for extra income has quickly grown to the point where Jamie couldn’t manage it alone. This year, Jamie’s income as a real estate broker has outpaced my own, and she needed help. The juggling of both our schedules was getting out of hand. She was teaching all-day homebuyer classes two Saturdays a month, heading out to show houses the minute I got home from work, or trying to cram as many home inspections, closings, and business meetings into my work-from-home-Fridays as she could. It was getting to be too much.

Since I’d already been doing a lot of graphic & marketing work for STC, I took that experience and had been putting it straight back into the development of logo, branding, and marketing pieces for Home Source. It’s a great time to be in business for yourself, especially when between social media and self-publishing options you can put out materials every bit as good as the guys with multi-million dollar budgets, as long as you have the chops for it.

So when the time came where we knew it was time to go all in, we held our breath and took the plunge into our family business. Tomorrow, I will make my official as the Vice President of Communications & Marketing for Home Source Realty. (Yes, on Saturday. Welcome to real estate.) In addition to web, marketing, graphics, PR, and vendor relations, I’ll also be getting my real estate license in the coming months. Oh, and helping out as a co-stay-at-home-parent, a new faculty member in our ongoing homeschool project, and adjunct chef and house-cleaner-upper.

It’s going to be a wild ride, but I’m really excited to build something of our own. Are there risks? Sure. Is this a great time to be in real estate in the DC area? Best it’s been in a while, yes.

Will I have time to write fiction, finish those novels I’ve been yammering about, and win a Hugo award? I’ll make time. It just may take a bit longer than I’d hoped. So be it. The adventure begins, and adventure is what every writer needs.

 

Video Games: Opiate of the Mass Effect?

23 April, 2012 at 10:36 am
Achievement Unlocked

If you want this shirt, you need help.

No matter how you slice it, gaming is huge business. Over $10 billion annually in sales, and the vast majority of American households play video games. (For a bunch of interesting stats, check out this handy infographic from the ESRB.) An ever-increasing number of us could probably be considered gamers, whether it’s as simple as our Angry Birds addiction or the Wii Tennis Parties we have when there’s a family get-together, or a more serious habit like that fostered by the MMORPG fanboys (and girls). Even the music industry is getting in on the action. If you haven’t heard it before, good luck getting this song out of your head:

Gaming was a staple of my life as far back as I can remember. I don’t know if the memory is accurate, but I distinctly remember riding on my dad’s shoulders out of the mall at about age 3 while he carried a shopping bag with our brand new wood-veneered Atari 2600. I remember nights spent playing Stampede! and Air Sea Battle and Chopper Command and, of course, Pac Man. When I made it into school, we had educational games in the classroom. I was a huge fan of games like The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. When we got our first home PC (An 8086 with 640K RAM, CGA graphics, two 5.25″ floppies and no hard drive) the Christmas after I turned 10 years old, I started hunting for games everywhere I could find them. Shareware bins, friends houses, and the growing software section in retail stores. By the time I was 17, I had bought a much nicer computer, a Sega Genesis and Sega CD, and was reading gaming magazines looking for the newest and best. I had also by this time routinely begun to play games for 6-10 hours at a clip, immersing myself in the experience and tuning out the world. By college, I knew how to build and fix computers, run them faster, make them play better. During my senior thesis (which I did during Spring Break, because I was lame) I took a break and bought myself a Sega Dreamcast, and we had alcohol-fueled Soul Calibur tournaments into the wee hours of pretty much every night thereafter.

I didn’t know it, but I had a serious problem. My wife figured it out after I was let go from my job upon returning from our Honeymoon, only for me to lay around on the floor of our unfurnished condo playing Unreal Tournament all day while she supported us. Oh, I looked for jobs, too, but it was a half-assed attempt. I was much more interested in improving my Capture the Flag rankings. Games had been such a part of my life for so long, such a consolation from the disappointments of the world and my own inadequacies as a clumsy, non-athletic nerd, that I had come to depend on them as a coping mechanism without knowing that this is what I was doing. I was simply hot for the chase, the thrill of solving the next puzzle, shooting the bad guys, driving at breakneck speeds to outrun the cops, and in general just living out the exciting life and sense of purpose that I was ultimately lacking in the real world.

In “meatspace,” I was a loser. In games, I was a badass. It couldn’t be simpler. And so, during the times of my life when I was at my lowest, when I needed to be out busting butt and clawing my way forward to provide for my family, I would instead devote my considerable intellectual capabilities toward planning effective airstrikes in Command & Conquer: Generals.

This is the insidious thing about video games. They allow every washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker to feel the euphoria of accomplishment without ever doing anything in real life. This pushes an endorphin button in your brain so hard that you come back again, and again, and again. And if you were destined to really become someone and share your talents with the world, but you used video games to salve the sullen times when you were busy schlepping burgers so you could pay your dues, you may have in fact doomed yourself to become the washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker you were never meant to be. Because the allure of the game will always call you back. Just one more level. Just one more mission. Just one more…

I pretty much quit video games cold turkey a couple years ago. I started finding real, actual things to do that felt productive and pushed some of those same endorphin buttons in my brain. So I began replacing video games with these activities, and I hardly experienced any withdrawal. I’d plop down for the occasional tryst with Fallout 3 or Portal 2, or every now and then fire up my copy of The UrQuan Masters (which you can get for free and relive one of the best sci-fi action RPGs ever, and which really helped define the genre) for a bit of interstellar fisticuffs, but nothing that rose to the same level as before. I was free!

Then came this past weekend. I had come down with some kind of nasty, ache all over and feel completely exhausted cold that makes you just want to do nothing. With plenty of rain in the forecast and not much that needed doing, I gave in to the temptation and cracked open a copy of Mass Effect 3.

A word about Mass Effect - it’s just about the most well developed and interesting popular science fiction universe since Star Wars, and the whole series is a work of artistic and gameplay genius. Someone gave me a copy of Mass Effect, and I liked it so much I actually showed up at Target the morning Mass Effect 2 came out and plunked down whatever they were asking so I didn’t have to wait. I had more restraint with the third installment in the trilogy, but I knew I couldn’t resist forever.

So there I was, just giving it a little spin to see how it felt. I’d play for a little bit then take a nap. Maybe get some reading in or a movie with the boys. I would just get warmed up, catch up on the story, get a couple missions under my belt, etc. 10 hours later, I wondered why my body hurt so much, and why it was so dark in the house. And I did the same thing again on Sunday. I racked up at least 16 hours of gameplay in two days. I Could. Not. Stop. At one point last night, I actually heard myself saying to my wife, “I’m just going to finish this mission, and then we can do whatever you’d like.”

I’m just going to finish this mission? SERIOUSLY?!? AM I FIFTEEN YEARS OLD AGAIN?!?!?

I suddenly remembered why I had lost so much of my life to these games. They just take you away to another place, where you can have adventure safely, meet new and interesting people, and shoot them in the face with cryo-bullets that freeze their bodies and make them shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Unless you’re Richard Branson, chances are very good that video games are a lot more interesting and exciting than your life is. And that’s why they will completely replace it if you let them.

I wonder how many amazing writers, composers, filmmakers, and artists we’ll never know about because their parents bought them an XBOX as a seemingly harmless Christmas present. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I can only imagine how much more I would have accomplished if I had pursued my fiction writing instead of immersing myself in the fiction of others. I’d probably have finished several novels by now. Maybe even gotten one of them published. When cyberpunk novelist and legend William Gibson was asked how he has been able to write so many books, he responded, “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”

What he says about TV goes doubly for games. They take longer to consume, and they lure you so much deeper in.

So, will I finish Mass Effect 3? Yes. I’m fairly confident that I will, because I want to know the rest of the story. And because it’s fun.

Will I pick up another video game soon? Probably not. It’s just not worth getting addicted. I’ve got some real-life leveling up to do, and I’d rather not let anything so purposeless get in the way.

Excuses are Deadly

3 April, 2012 at 6:56 am

It's never a good idea to build your house on sand.

Excuses are deadly. Don’t make them.

When you make an excuse, you’re giving yourself permission to fail.

People who want to succeed never say “I can’t” or “I couldn’t” or “It wasn’t my fault.” Those statements are made by people who find opportunity too hard to handle.

Many people believe that if they have an air-tight excuse, nobody can blame them for not doing better. If they honestly don’t know something, can’t understand something, or are unable to figure out how to take the next step, then it must be okay. It’s fate. Circumstances beyond their control have kept them from doing better or becoming more. Everyone else will understand.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Excuses are things we hide behind so that we can die a slow death. They don’t give us cover, they expose us as cowards. They show off our laziness and our sense of entitlement.

If we want to accomplish more, we need to turn off the TV and work harder. If we want to lose weight, we need to cut the crap out of our diet and put in the work. If we want happiness, we need to realize that now is the best time of our lives for achieving that, and go out and do it.

Tell yourself that today – just today – you won’t make excuses. That you’ll make a commitment not to let your forward progress get stopped by a problem, but that you’ll find away over it, under it, or through it. Count how many times you start to say you can’t, and tell yourself (even if you don’t believe it) that you can.

Don’t let excuses kill your chance to be happy and successful. They have no power over you except the power you give them.

Expert is the New Normal

24 March, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Expert Terrain

Did your mom ever tell you that you were special? Did she hang your pictures up on the fridge? Did your dad tell you that you could do anything you wanted if you just set your mind to it?

Maybe you are special. But you know what? So are a lot of other people. I’m not kidding. Have you spent any time on this thing the kids these days are calling the “interweb”? There is so much talent out there it’s not even funny.

If you’re a writer, photographer, designer, content creator, or purveyor of fine video content, it’s a little daunting. You may have been hot stuff in your 5th grade story contest, but this is the world wide web, baby. You’re not playing with the farm team anymore.

It should scare you a little bit. Spend some time on the ubiquitous amateur photo and art sites, read some of the better blogs out there, get a read on the competition. Many of them are better than you at what you do, and they’re not even professionals. They have day jobs as statisticians and nail technicians, whatever the hell that means.

Am I talking to myself? Absolutely. There are some people out there that I just can’t help wishing I could be when I grow up. I remember one time – one shameful time – I watched a special effects video a kid put together on his home computer and I just walked away from the screen with angry tears in my eyes. That flipping kid wasn’t even out of high school yet, and I had spent four years getting my BA in Communications with a Radio & TV production concentration. I flat out did not have the skills to do what he had done. I was so pissed. That’s probably because I felt entitled.

Not anymore. Now I just work harder. I work longer. There’s no time left in my day for things like TV. Or how about video games? Man, how many years of my life have I spent chasing down a sense of virtual accomplishment at the business end of a rendered weapon. At the expense of real accomplishment. The clearer my goals become, the more stuff I push out of my schedule to make room to pursue them.

For example, I’m writing a blog post on Saturday afternoon. Who reads blogs on Saturday? Not many people. You can look at a stats chart for just about any website and see the dip on the weekend. But it doesn’t matter. I want to be writing every day, or as close to it as I can be.  I want to develop my following and my knowledge. I want people to find my content because it’s searchable and interesting. I want to be seen as an expert.

And that’s the point. None of us live in a small town world anymore. We live in a world where the bar is constantly raised by people we’ve never met. Not just people in New York, or Los Angeles, but people in St. Louis and Omaha and Aukland and Windhoek for all I know. (Windhoek is the capital of Namibia. Don’t feel bad if you had to look it up. I did too.)

Remember when everybody told you to get a college education to succeed in your career? Remember when you discovered that now that everyone else has a college education, you’re not ahead of the game, you’re just on par? Well this is just like that. Expert is the new normal. Talented people have more tools at their disposal to make their work get noticed and make a living doing what they love than ever before. And they’re out there doing it while you’re eating Fritos and watching a Chuck marathon. (It’s a great show, but SNAP OUT OF IT, MAN!!)

Mediocrity is just so…mediocre. If you want to coast in life, you can probably get by, but I’ve tried it and the results are (unsurprisingly) not very exciting. If you want a life less ordinary, a life filled with satisfaction and success, I suggest that you bust some ass and develop your expertise in something. Hopefully something that you love. Eat it, sleep it, breathe it, read about it until your eyes bleed. Talk about it. Challenge your assumptions. Be bold and go out there and make predictions and stake your claim and get noticed. Don’t pretend to be an expert and don’t you dare go calling yourself one. Prove it. Let your work speak louder than your resume. If you’re doing the right things, your CV is searchable and thus, demonstrable.

Yesterday, I participated in a workshop on crisis communications. I was in a room full of communications professionals. For most of them, communications was their full-time job. (For me, it’s only a part of what I do.) We were handed a crisis scenario and told to come up with a plan. I was nervous. I felt I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t know any of the people I was working with, and in fact was only introducing myself as the assignment was being handed out. I wanted to analyze, to hold back, to make notes and re-organize. Admittedly, I sometimes favor a defensive strategy, (nerd metaphor alert) fortifying my castle and preparing for the siege rather than scorching the earth and searching for plunder. But I saw a lack of leadership in my group and I decided I had might as well go out of my comfort zone and step up. I took the reigns, and started organizing everyone’s contributions. I wrote up a list of action items and divided it into categories (internal plan and external messages). Sensing that the pressure was off of them, the group turned to me to be the spokesman as each team presented their approach.

When I was finished, the next group that went started out by saying, “We came to many of the same conclusions you did, though we couldn’t articulate them nearly as well…” It felt good. I liked knowing I had command of the room, for just a few minutes. Like people were listening to me because I knew what I was talking about. I saw the presenters smiling at me and nodding, like when a teacher is particularly proud of a student. The woman running the workshop stopped me at the end to compliment me and thank me for my contribution.

My initial inclination had been to hang back quietly out of the worry that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t up to the task. I usually have very good instincts, and so I tend to listen to them. But this instinct in particular has never done anything for me but keep me from achieving the things I really want. So I’ve learned to stop listening to it. And now I’m getting things done. I’m earning those little successes that build your confidence and make it easier to take a risk the next time. Everybody needs those. On the road to becoming a champion, you can afford a few losses as long as you rack up enough wins.

So my question to you is: are you ready to be an expert? To do outstanding work? To accomplish things – small and big – instead of just talking about doing it?

If not, what’s holding you back?

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