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.

You have a choice to make when it deciding exactly when to starting something.

Most of us want to start sometime in the future; a time when you will finally feel ready, when you will have your ducks all in a row, and the universe gives you some magical sign.

Or you can start exactly where you are right now.

The thing is, the first option is a false choice. When will you start the process of getting ready? Are you going to do that at some point in the future when you feel ready to get ready?

You have no choice but to start where you are.

So, what are you waiting for?

I turned 40 today.

I spent the day at work, like I’ve done essentially every weekday since I was 20. Over half of my life has been spent in this routine.

When I was in my 20’s I was fortunate to have an older coworker, not my boss but more of a mentor. He helped me set a deliberate and thoughtful career plan, to check in on progress toward this career plan, and use this career plan to guide my decisions regarding my career.

It was a fantastic exercise. I do love my job, and I love my job because I deliberately set a plan to get it. You’re a lot more likely to like where you end up if you planned to get there in the first place.

But as much as I love my work (I make tools for surgeons to treat heart-patients), work for most of us is just that; work. What about the rest of my life? My relationships? My free time? What do I want the rest of my life to look like outside of work?

Why do we ask kids, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead, why don’t we ask them, “What do you want your life to be like when you grow up?”

It’s just the same product with a new feature.

It’s just a quick remodel.

It’s just a quick part swap.

It’s just a little bit more code.

All of these are lies. Anytime I hear someone use the word “just,” I know two things for certain; -a- they don’t understand what they’re about to ask of me, and -b- they underestimated the “ask” by at least 50%.

Think about it. Has anyone ever told you, “It’s just X,” and it was really just “X.”

Beware of people who say “just”.

I went bald at about 22 years old. I say “about” because I don’t actually know; I started shaving my head at 20. I saw the writing on the wall and decided to “get in front of it,” as they say in Public Relations. (Full disclosure, I first shaved my head essentially on a bet, but that’s another story.)

Being bald at age 20 allowed me to remain essentially timeless until a few gray hairs showed up in my beard in my late 30’s. It is incredible how little I changed looking back at pictures that span 15 years.

None of that really bothered me. Being bald allowed me to keep on aging gracefully, and salt-and-pepper grays are dignified. Plus, I still had my eyesight; 20/20. I could fly a fighter jet if I wanted to! And I had perfect teeth. Well, not perfect, I managed to chip my two front teeth badly before getting braces, but I had no cavities.

Then right about the age of 40, I got a fiber of some sort lodged in my eyelid and proceeded to scratch the sclera instead of the iris or pupil. Upon removing the fiber, the optometrist said, “Take these steroid/antibacterial drops, and I’ll see you in a week to get your prescription.”

I was shocked! “I don’t need glasses, thank you very much!”

“Oh really? Read this with your left eye. Good. Now read this with your right eye. Oh, you can’t read it? Interesting. Look through here and try again. Oh, you can read it now. Interesting. I’ll see you in a week to check your prescription.”

And there it goes, the last bastion of my youth.

I guess it’s time to start aging gracefully.

Today I turn 40 years old.

40 years before I was born Pearl Harbor hadn’t even happened yet. That’s a fact I can’t unlearn.

I’m one of the luckiest people on earth. I was raised by a fantastic family in an incredible community. I love that I was raised in a town where, to this day, I could knock on any one of a dozen front doors and be invited in for dinner, including just popping into grandma and grandpa’s where I’m guaranteed at least a sandwich. I am grateful for that.

You can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family, and I was born into a kind, loud, caring, loud, funny, loud, boisterous, loud, and loving family – immediate and extended. I don’t know what the actual term is for a cousin’s child is, because they’re all just nieces and nephews to me.

I’ve been very fortunate along the way to make some of the best friends I could ever want. Not a lot of people get to spend 14 years going to school with the same group of 20 or so, but I’m one of those lucky ones. I have even been lucky enough to have one particular friend hold a figurative mirror to up to my life and ask me if I like what I see at a time when I needed it. In college, whether through class, the gym, or bands, I made some great friends in the college town that became my second home town. I found the joy of writing, rehearsing and performing music there. I also met my brilliant, lovely, hilarious wife there.

She was adventurous enough to come with me, up-and-leave that college town; her home town, leave her job, sell her house, and move to the big Twin Cities in search of jobs that would provide the kinds of challenges we just couldn’t find in that college town. Together we bought, remodeled, and / or sold four houses, said goodbye to my old dog and her old cat, adopted a dog, fostered a bunch of dogs, adopted a couple of cats, provided hospice care for a couple of dogs, and generally lived a pretty good life.

I made countertops for too long. Then I made fighter jet and satellite and 4-wheeler engine parts. Then I made heart valves, then MRI-Guided Neurosurgical Lasers (and yes, it is as cool as it sounds), and now I make tools for cardiac surgeons. I also learned along the way that my job is just that, a job, and that it doesn’t define me.

I also fancied myself as an athlete. High school sports taught me the best way to compensate for being 5’8”, 145# was to hit the weight room and run extra sprints. Track taught me that there was a direct correlation; the harder I worked the faster I got. I also learned that I can make myself more uncomfortable than most for 2 laps. Marathons and GORUCK taught me that can be uncomfortable for 4-17 hours straight, and that typically you will pass out before you die. Crossfit taught me that life doesn’t get any easier, you just add more weight.

My 30s gave me a scare when I found out I had a congenital heart defect. Then I found out it required open-heart surgery to fix. That sounded uncomfortable, so I asked if we could just wait it out and was told, “If we don’t fix it you’ll be dead by age 50.”

So we fixed it. And it was uncomfortable. And I struggled with cognitive issues for years after. I thought I was going to lose my job because my brain just didn’t work the same.

But I recovered, and this whole process; heart defect-surgery-recovery, was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. It has given me the ability to connect to friends and family struggling with memory issues, stroke recovery, MS, and for some, their own open-heart operations, in a way that I could never have done without the gift that was my heart defect.

But I’m 40 now. Repaired heart-or-no, if I’m lucky, I’m half-way home. I’m excited to see what I can do with the time I’ve been given.

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