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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“Need” is a strong word.

I know language evolves, it has to. It has to find a way to reflect the current condition of the world, the current usage.

But “need” is too strong, its use (or misuse) too pervasive and the impact of that misuse too great to slide by unaddressed.

You need shelter. You need to eat. You need to drink. You need to sleep.

Literally everything else is a choice.

You don’t NEED to go to the gym.

You don’t NEED to start eating better.

You don’t NEED to find a new job.

“Need” means you’re giving up your power to a force outside of yourself, that you’re capitulating to someone else’s will. Need is an external force acting on you and by saying “I need…” you’re allowing it to happen. You’re a spectator in your own life watching other people pull your strings like a marionette.

Instead of saying “I need,” put down the phone, shut your laptop and turn off your TV, stop for a second and ask yourself, “What do I want?”

Not, “What do advertisements tell me I should want?”

Not, “What do others want for me?” Or worse, “from me”?

What do you actually want?

Now write it down and go get it.

Real-talk, this is a TBD.

What I know is that I am committing to journaling daily for the next 5 years.

I’ve set a daily alarm at 9 pm to prompt me to write (which admittedly I snoozed 3 times tonight).

This was prompted at least in part by watching this video. Additionally, it’s a habit that I have admired in others.

I’m nervous and excited about beginning this practice.

Disclaimer:

This is just the starting point. There is far more to safely operating a motor vehicle than I’m going to cover.

Introduction

Learning how to drive a manual transmission was a particularly unpleasant experience. My Dad taught me the same way his dad taught him, and before that was horses probably.

Tell me if any of this is familiar:

Dad drove me out to a gravel road, put me in the driver’s seat, showed me the pedals and told me to drive back home.

The car lurched and chugged.

The motor revved and I learned what burning clutch smells like.

I skipped 3rd gear and went straight into 5th.

I forgot that I only had 5 gears (not 6) tried to put it in reverse.

The motor died a lot.

That poor starter.

Dad yelled “Clutch!” a lot.

I said “I quit” and made him drive us home.

Dad tried his best to teach me to find the catch point, to work the clutch and gas together, and eventually, I did learn. In the end, he was successful, and I am grateful. In fact, now I love a manual transmission. It’s the best way to make slow cars feel fast.

Now that my nieces and nephews are of age to drive, it’s my turn to teach.


Assumptions

In the interest of brevity and clarity, I had to make a few assumptions.

  • You have a manual transmission car,
  • a person who wants to learn how to drive one,
  • a quiet place to drive with no traffic, and
  • you want to minimize emotional scarring while maximizing the life of your clutch.

Body

Before you read any further, think of all the steps it takes to drive a manual transmission car. Extra credit: write them down on paper and compare notes at the end.

Here’s the process I used to teach my niece how to drive a manual transmission car. Here are the steps, with a brief description of each.

It’s the best wrong way I know and it’s far from perfect.

  1. Plan

    Before we went out for a driving lesson, I considered all the operating steps necessary to drive a manual transmission car and selected the smallest number that I thought made sense to teach in one sitting without me having to yell “CLUTCH!”;

    Start the car moving, shift from 1st gear to 2nd gear then stop.

    This was a lesson in process decomposition and a human’s ability to automate a task that has become routine. There are SO MANY steps that are automatic to me that I neglected to plan for. I underlined each “forgotten” step below.

    Note the ratio of underlined/forgotten to the rest. Now look the list of steps you wrote down. How many did you miss?

  2. Teach

    Once I had my lesson mentally planned out, it was time to teach.

    Here are the steps I taught her, and how I taught them.

    Again, note the number of underlined steps that I forgot to plan for and had to make up on the fly.

    1. Show “where” neutral is and what it feels like
    2. Show where “in-gear” is and what it feels like
    3. Introduce the “H-shape” of the transmission and show where 1st and 2nd gear are.
    4. Introduce the clutch
    5. Have her push the clutch and put the car in 1st gear, then neutral, then 2nd gear, then neutral, 1st, etc. etc.
    6. Introduce the emergency brake
    7. Set the e-brake
    8. Take the car out of gear
    9. Push the clutch down
    10. Turn the key
    11. Push the clutch in further so the sensor that checks that the clutch is pushed down all the way before the starter starts lets the starter start
    12. Turn the key to start the car
    13. Tell her about that sensor, and explain why the car wants to make sure the clutch is pushed in completely before letting you start the car so the starter doesn’t cause the car to lurch forward
    14. Push the clutch
    15. Put the car in 1st gear
    16. Introduce the “catch point” by letting out the clutch until you feel the car start to move
    17. Kill the car and remember the e-brake is still set
    18. Restart the car
    19. Release the e-brake so the car can move
    20. Push and hold the clutch
    21. Put the car in first gear
    22. Introduce the “catch point” by letting out the clutch until you feel the car start to move then push the clutch again
    23. Repeat 10 times to build a little muscle memory and let her get the “feel” of where that catch point is, and how to move the pedal around and find that catch point
    24. Put the car in neutral
    25. Have her hold the gas pedal at 1,000 RPMs, idle, hold 1500 RPMs, idle, hold 2000 RPMs, idle, back to 1000 RPMs, idle. Etc.
    26. Repeat 10 times to build a little muscle memory and let her get the “feel” feathering the gas pedal and get used to holding steady
    27. Now that she has a feel for the clutch and gas pedals, it’s time to move the car
    28. Push the and hold the clutch
    29. Put the car in 1st gear
    30. Hold the gas at 1,000 RPMs
    31. Let out the clutch until the car starts to move at the “catch point”
    32. Hold the clutch there until the car is moving
    33. Gently release the clutch
    34. Gently push the gas to accelerate
    35. Push the clutch
    36. Let off the gas
    37. Put the car in 2nd gear
    38. Gently release the clutch
    39. Gently push the gas to accelerate
    40. Push the clutch
    41. Let off the gas
    42. Put the car in neutral
    43. Press the brake to stop
    44. Repeat steps 27. through 43. 5 times
    45. On the 6th time, have her shift from 2nd to 3rd gear which in this case results in accidentally going into 5th gear, the car chugging, and me yelling “CLUTCH!”
      (and I swore I was better than that!)
    46. Switch seats and turn the car around so we’re heading toward home
    47. Repeat steps 27. through 43. Another 4 times
    48. Tell her that 1st gear is only ever necessary from a dead stop, and that if she’s rolling at all, there is no need to shift down to 1st gear
    49. Have her start one more time, and turn right back toward’s gramma’s house, keeping the car in 2nd gear
    50. Have her stop the car
    51. Ask her if she’s comfortable driving back to gramma’s and parking
    52. Listen when she says she no, switch seats again, give her a high-five for being an awesome student, and drive back to grammas.

That’s it!


Wrap up

I set out to teach the smallest little starting morsel of how to drive a manual transmission and ended up with a 52 step process and a far greater appreciation for everyone who has ever taught this to anyone else, especially my old man teaching me.

Note that I didn’t even have her turn the wheel until the very end. I realized there was so much that was new to her that I didn’t want her to have to worry about navigating anything other than a straight line at first. That was deliberate. I even turned the car around for her so we could head back home.

Was that overkill? Would she have been able to drive around a country block and get us home? Probably. But I wanted to this to be memorable for how easy it was, so I chose no turning the wheel until the very end, and even then only once.

At the end of the day, my niece learned how to start a manual transmission car and shift from 1st gear into 2nd, and she did great! Emotional scarring was minimal, and I think she may even be open to another driving lesson in the future.