Brian Shaler

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Gravity is for chumps

Archive for June, 2012

People Put People in Boxes

Individuality Demotivational Poster

"Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else."

If you think about it, it is obviously not possible to completely and accurately describe a person’s personality in one sentence. Unfortunately, that’s about as much thought as most people will give you. The best way to understand how other people summarize you is to listen to how they introduce you to others, because they have one sentence to convey to the new person everything that is important to know about you.

“He’s the guy that jumps.”

In 2007, I was at the after party for a conference and sat down at a table with a couple of strangers. Before my butt reached the chair, the guy on my right who I had never met before said to the guy on my left who I had never met before, “This is Brian Shaler. He’s the guy that jumps.” I was surprised and amused. I rolled with it. If I took myself more seriously, I would insist that I’m not nearly some guy who jumps, but an astute software developer. It’s a strange feeling to be summarized by something silly you did instead of what you’re most proud of.

I learned a lot by being the guy that jumps. I learned about how people try to put you in a box and how they decide to represent you internally and externally. Not everyone can appreciate my skills. Like my parents, for example, who would probably describe me the same whether I did data visualization or made WordPress themes—”he does stuff with the computer,” or “he makes web sites.” Now, my parents actually care, and they try to understand. So what happens when people don’t care, or don’t try? As it turns out, they’ll try to put you in the easiest box that seems to fit, based on the most vague knowledge about you. It will tend to be the first thing they learned about you, the thing they most understand (often the simplest), or the thing they find the most intriguing or unique.

Boxes are hard to escape.

Once someone puts you in a box, it will be very difficult to get them to change how they summarize you. This is part of the reason first impressions are so critical. If you say something offensive within a few seconds within seconds of meeting someone, they’ll likely see you as a crass person from then on, even if what you said turns out to be uncharacteristic of you. If someone meets you as “the guy that jumps,” chances are they will introduce you to the next person in the same way.

If you don’t fit their understanding, they’ll fit you to their understanding.

If you’re an impressionist artist, someone who doesn’t understand Impressionism will describe you using the things in your art, rather than what is being being conveyed in the art. For me, my skills with programmatic animation, data visualization, and interactive interfaces are often summarized as “making web sites,” because some of it may exist on the web and people are more likely to understand what making web sites means. Ideally, you would be described as what you are, but if the person doing the describing doesn’t share your knowledge on the subject, they will make up something that sounds close enough to them.

If you do something sticky, it’ll stick more than anything else, no matter how relevant it is.

There are pros and cons to being known for something more interesting or intriguing than what actually defines you. On the plus side, people with know, remember, and perhaps even talk about you. Unfortunately, most of those people won’t have any idea who you really are or what you really do. This was the case with the jumping persona. It would be great to have strangers introduce me to strangers as a talented interactive developer, but the people who understand my work deeply enough to appreciate it are few and far between. It also sounds less glamorous and exciting than a zany set of photos.

It was clear jumping was much more memorable and it was certainly a conversation starter. It didn’t convey anything of meaning about me or command any sort of respect, but it opened the door and got people’s attention. It showed me the power of intrigue, which I will ramble about in more detail in another post.

Focusing on the Fun

When I started my data visualization business, I had some pretty ambitious plans. I would get a bunch of work, too much work, and quickly start hiring people. I would also focus a portion of my—and my employees’—time on data viz related products. I had an idea of what a “successful” business would look like, based on the successful businesses I’ve seen my friends build. It took over a year to figure out that path was not for me.

I re-evaluated what I enjoyed about running my business and what I didn’t enjoy. It turns out following that typical path to “success” would involve focusing most of my attention toward the parts I didn’t like. What would my business look like if I instead focused as much as possible on the aspects I enjoyed? I wouldn’t have employees, I wouldn’t work excessive hours, I wouldn’t take on every project that comes my way, and I wouldn’t accept projects on unreasonable timelines.

Sure, I would make more money if money was my top priority. If my top priorities are quality of life, travel, and working on interesting challenges, I have to be selective about which clients and project I take on. Focusing on the fun comes at a cost, but I think it’s worth it.

If you can make a profit doing as much work as you want and enjoy what you do, isn’t that a successful business?


During the course of the last few years, my Myers-Briggs psychological profile changed. It has been interesting to watch the transformation, and only recently did I discover the change in my score.

If I had taken the test long enough ago, I would likely have scored INTP. Growing up, I was, by almost any measurement, an introvert. By the time I took the test for the first time, I was being much more social. However, my introvert side never went away.

When my score was in the ENTP range, two things were happening in my life. First, I had discovered there was a technology community in Phoenix and was socializing with people I had a lot in common with. Second, I was putting a lot of effort into getting my name out in the technology industry. Despite being an introvert, I have never had a problem socializing with people once a conversation has started, especially if it is about a topic of interest. However, when it comes to initiating conversations, my introverted side is much more apparent.

While I was putting myself out there, I stumbled upon something very interesting: intrigue. For me, intrigue was the key to being an extrovert. If I could only get people to be intrigued enough to want to strike up conversation with me, I would be set.

Unfortunately, what essentially led to the ENTP->INTP transition was that I stopped getting my name out. As a result, people stopped being intrigued. People no longer had a reason to initiate interactions with me. My introverted side was given room to shine, and I became more and more reclusive.

I almost entirely stopped couch-surfing, because despite having more couch options than ever, I stopped asking my friends if I could crash with them. I used to have no qualms about asking, and my friends were often more than willing to accommodate (and hang out). As a result of becoming more reclusive, I asked fewer and fewer friends (sometimes even none) if I could crash on their couch. What’s interesting about this is that I started deciding for my friends that they had better things to do than hang out with me, or that simply asking would be too much of an intrusion. I would still feel like I was intruding despite being explicitly told, “you’re always welcome to stay here,” and, “any time, just ask.” In fact, the opposite would occur: my friends would be offended that I didn’t ask.

In a way, my incessant travel helped foster the transition. At first, hopping around the States helped me kindle relationships with friends in various cities. When I started to branch out and travel to places where I didn’t know anyone, I effectively faded out of peoples’ lives. Out of sight, out of mind.

One of the catalysts of the transition was negative feedback, criticism, detractors, and assuming the worst.

The first three can be lumped into one, which is the result of doing anything with any visibility. If you’re putting yourself out there, you’ll inevitably step on toes, rub people the wrong way, or statistically stumble upon a vocal minority known as trolls. It’s easy to say not to take those people to heart. Ultimately, you have a choice of being silently admired by many and vocally hated by a few, or not existing at all. I stopped volunteering to organize community events, started to become an outsider instead of a participant when it came to the technology community, and I stopped sharing most aspects of my life (the line between sharing and promoting or bragging is a blurry one). Despite there being only a handful of them, the detractors won.

Assuming the worst is very subtle but equally endemic. If one person was unavailable to let me crash on their couch, I would assume the rest were, too. If I told a friend I would be in town and they didn’t insist we meet up, I would assume they didn’t want to. I would assume that because I didn’t have anything specific to talk about, ask, or say that my friends wouldn’t want to talk or meet up.

I like sharing my thoughts, whether it’s a blog post or a video, but I tend to assume nobody is interested and I must be vain. After all, broadcasting your thoughts is something an extrovert would do. Despite that, I occasionally force myself to open up and share, on the off chance that someone might enjoy it and in hopes that my mere existence won’t anger anyone.

Is Entrepreneurship the Right Answer, Right Now?

For perspective, I should note that most of my friends and acquaintances, or most of the people I associate with, are entrepreneurs. The kind of people I find most interesting are self-actuating creators. People who would rather follow their own hearts than work all day to accomplish someone else’s dreams. People who would give up stability and security in return for freedom and flexibility.

That said, it’s common for people who think in these terms to believe entrepreneurship is inherently better than employment. They believe self-employment is the right answer.

They congratulate those who cross the threshold from full-time employment into the world of self-employment. Making such a transition is seen as a rite of passage. A frightening, stressful, and challenging struggle almost every entrepreneur has had to face.

Less celebrated are those who make a transition in the opposite direction—unless it’s by means of acqui-hire, in which case the celebration is about the payday rather than the paycheck. In most cases, it seems people subconsciously mourn those who demote themselves into full-time employment. They throw in the towel on their business and work for someone else’s. It’s seen as a failure of sorts, and it’s often quite evident the excitement someone has to get an awesome job is overshadowed by shame.

Ultimately, the people transitioning from self-employment to full-time employment have made a calculated decision. They aren’t going from the Right Way™ to the Wrong Way™. They’re going from what was the Right Way For Them™ to what is the Right Way For Them Right Now™.

As I say in every situation where there is a choice to be made, there are pros and cons to everything.

When it comes to work and life, the pros and cons vary not only by the individual but also by the moment. When it comes to entrepreneurship versus full-time employment, one or the other might always be the right answer for certain people. However, for most people, it seems the right answer can change.

What do you care most about right now? Is it the flexibility to travel, work from anywhere, and make your own hours? Maybe self-employment will make you happier. Do are care about medical benefits for you and your family, or do you need stability to provide for them? Maybe full-time employment will make life easier for you and your loved ones.

How much stress do you have in your life? How much stress can you handle? How much stress do you want? Self-employment can suck. It can be draining. It can take over your life. The market can make what’s already difficult even harder. Your clients/customers may or may not pay. Sometimes, entrepreneurship can take its toll, and you realize that you need a break, you need some sanity and order in your life.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Everyone should be constantly evaluating what makes them happy and be prepared to change paths when they realize what is right for them at the moment is something else. The grass is often greener on the other side of the fence, because people compare the cons of their side of the fence with the pros of the other side. Don’t get caught up in that. Also, don’t get caught up in what other people think is the right answer, because as I said, it varies by person and by time.

For me, it’s a constant struggle. The cons of entrepreneurship weigh heavy on me, because I just like making things. For now, and for the foreseeable future, self-employment is the best way for me to get what I want out of life while working on whatever I want to work on.

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