Too many among us are continuing to fetishize long working hours. Too many of us are wearing our fatigue as a badge of honor.
Michael Rucker, Ph.D.

I love hard work as much as the next person. 

I just told the story today about my worst ever day at work; digging a hole about five feet deep into a packed gravel driveway, cutting a clogged 90° fitting out of a 10″ sewer pipe, bailing hundreds of gallons of manure by hand out of the hole, patching the pipe (with 2x 45° bends instead bend to prevent future clogs). I still remember the almost apologetic way my boss asked me to fill the hole back in at the end of the day.

The fitting wasn’t the only thing that was 90°. That was one of those miserable, stupid-hot, crazy-humid Minnesota late summer days. I must have drunk 2 gallons of water that day. My boss’s wife made me breakfast, lunch and dinner. I climbed out of the hole to clean up and eat, but other than that, I was in that hole all day and up to mid-shin in manure for a lot of that time. 

Manure takes on a certain potency when the sun hits it. There is no wind at the bottom of a five-foot deep hole, and no geothermal cooling effect could take the edge off of a noon-day sun in late July in Minnesota. 

“Steve, we have feed being delivered in the morning, which means the semi-trailer needs to go right where that hole is. If I do chores for you, do you think you could stay and fill it back in?”

And I did. 

I had done chores at 5 am that morning, and spent from 7 am to 5 pm digging a hole, bailing out liquified manure, and patching the pipe. By the time I got done shoveling all that gravel back into the hole, it was nearly 8 pm. 

My boss told me, “Thanks.” and offered to take my shift doing chores in the morning, too, so that I could get some rest.

When I got my next paycheck, he had given me a $2/hour raise. 

I didn’t ask for it. And he didn’t tell me about it. But evidently he really was grateful.

I’d do that again tomorrow, for him, or any number of farmers around my hometown who gave me the opportunity to work hard and earn some spending money in high school and college. 

But even from a guy who thinks longingly about the simple hard work offered by a day like that, this idea of Gary Vanderchucking it for 80 hours a week has got to go. 

 

 

Eight years ago today I had open-heart surgery to correct a congenital atrial septal heart defect. That operation was the culmination of 2 years of symptoms, a misdiagnosis of seizure, a finally a correct diagnosis of Transient Ischemic Attacks (i.e. tiny strokes),

After my operation, my brain did not work as it did before all that. This was due in part to the trauma of the operation itself, and in part from trauma caused by the TIAs and the neuro-chemical roller-coaster of going on and off and on and off unnecessary seizure medications.

And it was the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I saw people demonstrate their care for me by taking time off of work to drive 1-2 hours one-way to drive me to cardiac rehab. I learned what the cognitive impact is of an open heart operation, and I’ve used that experience to help three close friends and family work through their own struggles after an open heart operation. I’ve also deepened friendships with coworkers who are battling neurological disorders of their own.

None of that could have happened without the gift of this heart defect and subsequent repair.

To some extent, that operation has defined my last 8 years, not by what it has taken from me, but rather by what it has given me.

One is a point. Two is a line. Three starts to be a trend.

Humans are fantastic at pattern recognition. Sometimes one data point is enough for us to learn. putting your hand on a hot oven top, for example. Other times, we need to take in similar information over and over to make the point.

I love reading, and listening to podcasts, which means that I hear authors interviewed on podcasts, and if the discussion on the podcast was interesting enough, then I often buy their book afterward. 

You can probably see where this is going. 

The result is I get backed up with reading, and reading is a great way to procrastinate when I would rather be creating. That’s where pattern recognition comes into play (as well as dialing back my podcast subscriptions, but that’s another story).

If I come across one person I respect espousing the merits of a particular book or author, I make note of it. If a second person I respect sings the praises for the same book or author, I may read a summary there-of. If a third and fourth person I respect promote the same book, then it goes on my reading list. 

 

Spoiler Alert
Terminator 2 had a problem. The problem was that the plot relied heavily upon a major revelation mid-way through the film. The revelation?

  • Background: In the first Terminator movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the villain sent to kill Sarah Connor (mother of John Connor, the eventual leader of the human race in the future battle versus the machines) and a human, played by Michael Biehn was sent to protect her.
  • Setup: In Terminator 2, Swarzenegger’s Terminator character was sent back in time again, and another character, played by Robert Patrick, was sent back as well. Both characters are in a race to find John Connor, played by Eddie Furlong.
  • The audience should assume that Schwartzenegger is the bad guy and Robert Patrick is the good guy until it’s revealed that Robert Patrick is not a human sent to protect John Connor, but rather an advanced cyborg sent to kill him, making Schwarzenegger’s original terminator the surprise hero this time around.

The problem is, that moment of suspense and awe was “spoiled” by the T2 trailers which gave away that Robert Patrick was actually an amorphous liquid metal killing machine.

The moment of suspense where Eddie Furlong is caught between the two cyborgs with the audience assuming Schwarzenegger is the villain was ruined by advertisers who wanted to show off their special effects.

I have a similar conundrum; the book I’m writing is the story of my own health scare. Real-time, I had a suspenseful experience as progressed through a series of specialists to find the actual cause. Again, spoiler alert; I had an undiagnosed heart condition requiring open-heart surgery to fix it. The “seizures” that my neurologist thought I was having were FAR more likely to Transient Ischemic Attacks (tiny strokes).

So my question;

  • Do I title, market, and brand my book as a story about the long long winding road to heart diagnosis and surgery? (and “spoil” the surprize, but have a better chance to “niche” down to a specific type of patient; heart patients)
    Or
  • Do I market it as a medical mystery and save the big reveal for the inside the book? (and potentially miss out on “niching” down that one last step?)

I didn’t know what happened on that toilet at work, but I knew it wasn’t nothing. 

After adding to my Migraine Log by sending myself an email with as much detail as I could recall, a wicked migraine with visual aura set in. I walked blurry-eyed into my boss’s office and described what happened, and told him I’d be going home for the day. 

To his credit, he talked me into letting him drive me to the ER. 

I looked around the ER and saw your standard mix of injury and illness. It seemed like a lot of people were in front of me, and I wondered how long I’d have to sit before being seen.

If you want to get to the front of the line at the ER, tell them you think you had a stroke. Triage is a thing, and evidently, Stroke is pretty high on the triage priority list. 

They put me in a wheelchair and started taking vitals even as they pushed me down the hall. The nurse checking my pulse called for the doctor to come right away. I don’t recall the order of operations, but I was in a gown with a pulse oximeter on my finger in no-time. I might have had an IV. I think they drew some blood, and within minutes the Dr. arrived to check me out. Motor control. Eyeball tracking. Strength. Balance. Reflexes. 

Physically, I was entirely unremarkable…story of my life. 

They wheeled me into a CT scanner to see what they could see of my brain. And there I sat, waiting for a radiologist to check my CT scan. My migraine was subsiding, and I just wanted to sleep, but inevitably, just as I dozed off, an alarm would sound. After nearly dozing off three times only to be woken by something attached to me sounding an alarm, I noted that the alarm beeped when my heart rate dropped below 45 beats per minute (BPM). I asked them if they could set the alarm at 40 BPM since my resting heart rate was in the 50-55  range and my ‘dozing off’ heart rate was even lower, evidently..  

I guess I wasn’t entirely unremarkable; they had never had a resting heart rate below 50 on a person who wasn’t dying. They couldn’t figure out how to adjust the alarm,  so I talked them into shutting it off entirely.

I figured I wasn’t going to die because the ER nurses were ok turning off my heart rate alarm.  I make terrible decisions, and I can be persuasive. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but I finally got some sleep. 

The Dr. woke me up to share the radiologist evaluation of my CT scan, which, once again, was unremarkable. No visible sign of stroke, hemorrhagic, or otherwise. 

So if it wasn’t a stroke, what was it?

There are a million reasons to write. To express emotion. To tell a story. To create. To refine your thoughts. Or, in this case, to solve a problem. 

I started having migraines when I was 20 years old. I remember the first one clear as day. I was watching TV in the living room of the house where I was renting a room when I started having trouble seeing the screen. Being 20 years old and invincible, or so I thought, I closed my eyes and hoped it would go away. 

Ignoring it was ineffective. About 20 minutes later, it hurt to blink. Every beat of my heart sounded like an under-water kick-drum in my head. I have a reasonably high tolerance for discomfort, and that was hell. 

Mom used to say her migraines were debilitating. I’d say this qualifies.

I didn’t write anything down that day. Three is a trend. Two is a line. One is just a point, and I only had one at that time. I had a few more migraine headaches over the next five years or so; some caused only the visual aura, some caused a debilitating headache, some with both. I wrote them all off.

Mom got migraines. I get migraines. C’est la vi.

At 26 years old, I was working in a big dysfunctional shared office, replying to an email when I noticed that I couldn’t see the words I was typing. After trying to struggle onward for a few minutes, I stopped and noticed many red squiggly underlines indicating misspelled words in the text I had just typed, but I couldn’t see words I had just written. I looked at my coworker, and while I could see his figure and the color of his clothes, I couldn’t see his face. I could see it was there, probably with a confused look on his face, as I looked at him with a confused look on my face, but I could not make out any details. 

“I know I’m pretty, Steve, but there’s no need to stare,” he joked.

I smiled back, “You might be the prettiest man on earth, but I can’t make out your face for some reason. I think I’m getting a migraine.”

Another coworker, Karen, who was unfortunate enough to share that weird workspace, spoke up, “A migraine where you can’t see is not a migraine. You need to go to the ER.”

Had I been at home alone, I would have drunk some water, ate some food, taken something for the pain, and had a nap. My coworkers disagreed vehemently. Eventually, they convinced me to go to the ER, where I was given a prescription for Imitrex to treat migraine headaches. 

I don’t like the idea of taking a drug instead of solving a problem. Maybe Imitrex was the solution, but other than migraine loosely fitting the narrative I gave at the ER, I didn’t have a real diagnosis. 

Ok. I’m an engineer. I’m analytical. I’m a problem solver. This is a problem. I should write this down and see if a trend pops out at me.

So I started writing down my migraines. If I was near a computer when I got a migraine, I wrote down exactly what I saw and felt. I wrote down as much about the prior 24-48 hours as I could remember; what I ate, what I drank, how much sleep I got. 

I was looking for patterns. I figured that when I eventually did go in again, I’d at least have data. 

Karen recently reminded me that she prompted me to go to the ER, and when they sent me home with a prescription, she advised me to get checked out. She said that it’s not normal to lose the ability to see sometimes. Maybe that’s why I decided to start keeping a Migraine log. 

Regardless, it would come in handy.

I was on the toilet at work when my vision melted out of focus, my ears rang like someone hit two tuning forks and held one inside each eardrum, and I watched as my right hand proceeded to fall away from my face and drop my phone on the floor despite my protestation. 

This is strange.

I slowly came out of it. Blurry overlapping edges slowly returned to distinct shapes. The tuning forks that had been ringing in my ears slowly faded to silence.

That was strange. That was the longest…minute…? five minutes…? How long was I dazed?

I reached down to pick up my phone, but I couldn’t. My right hand would not open and close around the phone. I could reach it, touch it, and bat it around on the floor like a cat with a toy, but I could not pick it up.

I reached with my left hand and picked it up, no problem. My right hand struggled to open my pants pocket to allow my left hand to deposit the phone.

I guess it’s not over.

Panic set in. I imagined my coworkers finding me passed out on the floor of the bathroom stall with my pants down around my ankles.

I need to wipe. 

I tried wiping with my right hand, but it was not strong enough or precise enough for the task. I had to wipe with my non-dominant left hand. 

OK. Sight and sound are good. Right arm is still weak and imprecise. Are you having a stroke? What did that email forward say about strokes? 

I put myself together and tried to act calm as I walked to the sink. I looked at my mirror-self in the eyes and started talking. “OK. That was weird. What was that? I can hear. I can see. I can stand. I can use my left hand, but my right arm is… off.”

Check dexterity. 

I turned my palms up and watched intently. In unison, I touched my left thumb to left index finger, and right to right. Thumb to the middle, ring, pinky, ring, middle, index, up and down both sides. I watched as each hand completed the task without even a hitch.

Dexterity seems OK, but my right arm still feels off. The whole arm. Tricep down, more on the pinky side than the thumb.

At 30 years old, I had been getting migraines for about ten years. At age 26, I started writing what I called a “migraine log” with symptoms and as much detail as I could recall about the day before each. Most of the time, there was alcohol, poor sleep, poor diet, or a combination thereof in the past 24 hours. Being analytical has its upside. I logged it all by replying to myself in an email.

This one was different.

Go write this down. NOW.

Subject: migrane log?

Date: Thu, 9 Dec 2010 16:23:47 -0600

Visual Disturbance. Single-Side Body Weakness. Ringing in ear. …

 

 

I’m house-sitting for some friends. One of the things they asked me to take care of while they’re out of town is to feed the birds. They buy suet in bulk and have seven feeders with suet blocks in various states of consumption.

As requested, I am dutifully filling the suet feeders.

Heres’ the thing, they’re feeding far more squirrels than birds. Five squirrels are fed to each bird, by my estimate.

That is to say, I’ve been watching a log of squirrels go about their lives in the last few days, and I noticed something I found interesting.

Squirrels spend most of their lives in trees, or in the case of the free-loading tree-rats which I’m watching right now, climbing things designed to keep them away from food intended for birds. The interesting thing is, with every move they make, the world responds to their presence. When they jump from limb-to-limb, the limbs give way; both the one they jumped off from, and the one they landed on. The tree-limbs are forever changed from claws grasping them and from the stress of jumping and landing. All this from a one-pound rodent.

As humans, the world around us mainly appears fixed. Apart from doors, cars, and some chairs, when we move, we know the ground, the floor, the stair-steps, will always remain where they were before we got there.

The world we interact with, while it feels stable, is more like those branches the squirrels play on. Each move we make, each interaction we have, each decision, causes a ripple behind us where we were before, and a matching ripple ahead of us where we land. These ripples spread to infinity, intersecting each other, adding to the ripples left by others. 

Imagine life as a squirrel. Imagine the universe shifting under your weight with every step, moving with every interaction, and oscillating trying to find the new center of gravity because of the shift you made.

Then imagine if each move was deliberate.

What would the universe look like if you treated every interaction as an opportunity to bring your plan into being?

You are more powerful than you can imagine.

I was on the toilet at work when my vision melted out of focus, my ears rang like someone hit two tuning forks and held one inside each eardrum, and I watched as my right hand proceeded to fall away from my face and drop my phone on the floor despite my protestation. 

This is strange.

I slowly came out of it. Blurry overlapping edges slowly returned to distinct shapes. The tuning forks that had been ringing in my ears slowly faded to silence.

That was the longest…minute…? five minutes…? How long was I dazed?

I reached down to pick up my phone, but I couldn’t. My right hand would not open and close around the phone. I could reach it, touch it, and bat it around on the floor like a cat with a toy, but I could not pick it up.

I reached with my left hand and picked it up, no problem. My right hand struggled to open my pants pocket to allow my left hand to deposit the phone.

I guess it’s not over.

Panic set in. I imagined my coworkers finding me passed out on the floor of the bathroom stall with my pants down around my ankles.

I need to wipe. 

I tried wiping with my right hand, but it was not strong enough or precise enough for the task. I had to wipe with my non-dominant left hand.

Sight and sound are good. Right arm is still weak and imprecise. Are you having a stroke? What did that email forward say about strokes? 

I put myself together and tried to act calm as I hurriedly walked to the sink. I looked at my mirror-self in the eyes and started talking. “OK. That was weird. What was that? I can hear. I can see. I can stand. I can use my left hand, but my right arm is… off.”

Check dexterity. 

I turned my palms up and watched intently. In unison, I touched my left thumb to the left index finger, and right to right. Thumb to the middle, ring, pinky, ring, middle, index, up and down both sides. I watched as each hand completed the task without even a hitch.

Dexterity seems OK, but my right arm still feels off. The whole arm. Tricep down, more on the pinky side than the thumb.

At 30 years old, I had been getting migraines for about ten years. At age 26, I started writing what I called a “migraine log” with symptoms and as much detail as I could recall about the day before each. Most of the time, there was alcohol, poor sleep, poor diet, or a combination thereof in the past 24 hours. Being analytical has its upside. I logged it all by replying to myself in an email.

This one was different.

Go write this down. NOW.

Subject: migraine log?

Date: Thu, 9 Dec 2010 16:23:47 -0600

Visual Disturbance. Single-Side Body Weakness. Ringing in ear. …

I got that question a lot when I told my friends and family that I was taking a new job for less pay in a new industry in a town 60 miles away.
They were even more confused when I told them I was stepping away from running a 40-person organization supporting plants across the USA and Canada, to be an entry-level engineer. I was leaving a job that reported into one of the brothers that ran a number of companies and taking a 20% pay-cut in the process.

They cared about me. They were looking out for me. But they were wrong and I knew it.

I knew it because I had kept a Career Development Plan for years, and that plan enabled me to realize not only that I was entirely unhappy in my job, but also realize that the company I worked for didn’t have a job that I would be happy with.

The template was given to me by my first Plant Manager, Dan. He described it as follows:

  • Get your professional history on paper including education back to High School, and the first job you ever had.
  • For each past job, make notes of why you took it, what you liked about it, what you didn’t like, and why you left.
  • For your current job, ask yourself if it’s the ideal situation, if it’s time to make a change, or if you need more info.
  • If there is a change in your future, write down what you can do now to be ready at that time.

I had been keeping this plan for 4 years when I decided that -a- I no longer enjoyed my job, -b- I had stopped learning, and -c- the job I wanted didn’t exist at that company.

I share this template with every intern, co-op, and young engineer I get to work with. Some use it. Some don’t. But in life, you always end up somewhere. If you set a plan and act on it, you’re more likely to enjoy where you end up.

I have kept that Career Development Plan for 18 years and with one brief exception (due to company culture, not the job itself), have enjoyed each new job more than the last.

Thanks Dan! I’m a heart patient who gets to make tools for cardiac surgeons to help other heart patients. I never would have ended up here without following the process you laid out.