There is no such thing as teaching. But you can, and should, help people learn

A few months ago I took the challenge to teach deep, technical troubleshooting to anyone who’s interested. So far in my team, only the folks with some coding background worked on complex technical stuff. Nobody ever taught us to troubleshoot, we kinda learned it as a side effect of coding, and trying to fix our own broken code.
Even though we work in customer support, technical skills are quite handy. WordPress can be customised in infinite ways, which is both its beauty and its curse. There are more possible configurations of our products than atoms in known Universe. It’s actually surprising that most of what our customers report are relatively known issues, with a relatively known way to solve. Yet about every one in a twenty is a unique and complex case, where all routine procedures break down, and you need to take the whole thing apart and work your way from ground up.
So far these 5% of requests would take a significant portion of our time and effort, and usually require someone code-savvy to bring them to a close. Now my job was to equip more people with the right tools to tackle such problems, regardless of their background and what they already knew.
Nobody actually teaches troubleshooting. There’s no training materials on that. No college has a class on troubleshooting in their curriculum, there’s even no online course about it. All the people who know how to do it, learned it incidentally while trying to do something else.
But I know it well that almost everyone can learn the basics of some coding language, and I’ve successfully helped a few people do it. Why wouldn’t anyone be able to learn how to debug the code?

So how do you teach something that nobody ever tried to teach?

First, you need to write down what kind of things there are actually to be taught. This is much harder than I thought it would be. All these things that are obvious and come without much thought to you, you suddenly realise are completely alien to almost everyone else.
I used to wonder why people don’t sometimes check quite obvious things when trying to solve a problem. Only recently I realised, these things are not obvious at all to non-technical folks. To me it’s natural to check the logs as the first thing, and compare the timing in logs with the timing of other events that happened on the site. Most people, even when they open the log file, don’t really see all the tiny hints about cause-effect chains that the logs can reveal. They don’t even know where to look and what for.
Discovering these unknown unknowns was hard, and for the most part, quite ridiculous. I thought I’d record a screencast of me working through a complex problem and use it to teach my process and tools. I got 25 minutes of video where I randomly check different fragments of code, output random variables to log, and murmur to myself “I have no idea what’s going on, but let’s try this and see what we got here”. 5 minutes after I gave up on recording, the answer came to me intuitively, when my brain connected some seemingly unrelated facts. How could I ever teach someone to do THIS?
Yet after weeks of working through complex problems, and writing down what tools, techniques, and chains of reasoning we used, my team came up with a rough list of what it is that we’re doing differently than most folks. The list itself was 6 pages long, not including materials on any of these topics. Writing even a short note on each seemed like a daunting task.
Fast forward another few weeks, we knew at least what sort of training materials we already had. As it turned out, we did have internal docs of some sort about many topics from our list. Some other topics, like WordPress actions and filters, or how HTTP works, are described pretty well online. I ended up with a lot of links, and about an equal number of gaps, the things no one had ever written about in the context of our work.
It would be a full-time job for at least one person over the course of a month to fill in the gaps. It would take another to build a well-rounded training program, with all needed information, exercises and tests. We didn’t have two man/months to spare. Since I’ve taken over this project, we’ve gone from 8 people to 4, and were barely keeping up with day-to-day work.
And then we realised, no one would actually have the time to complete such a training. Everyone had their day-to-day responsibilities as well, and working through all the modules would take them weeks or perhaps even months. By the time they encountered their first problem with WordPress Cron, they’d already forget what it is, let alone all the tips on how to troubleshoot it. We had to come up with something else.

It wasn’t what I imagined as a proper training

Here is a list of all the things we know we do, here is another one with all the materials we have about these things. The first list is most probably incomplete, the second one obviously is, I highlighted the gaps in red. Rate yourself on each topic on the scale 1-5, then pick 3 areas out of those where you scored low. This will be the core focus of your training. We’ll assign you the tickets on your chosen topics, be around to help whenever you get stuck, but in the end it is your responsibility to get these cases solved. After 4 weeks, let us know what you’ve learned, and write at least one article to share this knowledge with peers.
I was anxious of how half-baked it sounded when I was announcing this. It went against all my intuitions of how a proper training should look like. I thought we should at least have our documents in check. Once we at least organised all materials into a field guide, and added a few exercises that people could practice on, we would be kinda ready to point people there, so that the can learn what this whole troubleshooting thing is all about.

As it turns out, what we did was the best possible thing

I’m glad we didn’t wait until we’re “ready”, cause we would never be. We can only accept one or two students at once, but they’re getting what they needed the most. If we followed the mass-schooling script of teaching everything to everyone trough lectures, exercises and tests, I’m sure we could have much more folks go through it at a time. But I doubt they would learn more in result.
Complex problems are complex because they’re unique. You’re looking for a black cat, in a dark cellar, that isn’t even there. You don’t know what the outcome will be, because you’ve never encountered something like this before. If you knew, you could apply one of the well-known procedures and your job would be done.
Sometimes such routine procedures will seem like magic to someone who’s never tried them. But there’s no discovery involved there anymore, just a simple if-then. The first time I came across a site broken due to auto increment not set in the database, it took me a few hours to figure what the heck was happening, then another one to clean up the mess. Now I can identify such problems and fix them casually while chatting with a few customers at once.
Of course, documenting the routines is super helpful for everyone involved. It’s counterproductive and wasteful to reinventing the wheel, and we could do a much better job writing down everything that’s routine for us. Especially the newcomers on the Woo Happiness team could benefit from a standard catalog of known problems, their causes, and techniques to fix them.
Yet the troubleshooting process itself can’t be written down as another routine to follow. There’s no if-then decision tree that will take you from all possible starting points to the perfect solution of each problem. The essence of troubleshooting lies in being able to use your judgement and work your way through an issue that has no known answer yet. Most likely, there will be some familiar cases that this one resembles the most, and some tools and techniques that make most sense to apply. You’ll need to keep an eye on the big picture, adapt those tools and techniques to the situation at hand, and evaluate the progress, even if you have no idea what you’re looking for.
We could write all the articles on all the topics we’d ever come across, make them accessible to everyone on the team, and do video walkthroughs to help them memorise it. And quite hopefully, we’ll get there one day. Still, this would be no guarantee that the students can solve a similar-but-different case. Routine problems still make up 95% of the requests we get, and we’d be all better of if everyone knew exactly how to deal with them, but there will always be unknown unknowns. In these cases, only understanding why we’re using this particular technique, and what limitations it has in this particular context can help us avoid slipping into a Cargo Cult.
Nothing prepares for a troubleshooting quest like doing it already, only narrowed-down to certain areas. So what that at the end of the training you won’t know all the things written in our six-page long list? Neither do I, we all pretty much make it up as we go.

There is no such thing as teaching someone

There’s only setting up the environment for the student to walk through. But it is the student’s job to find their own way. It’s their job to understand what kind of a thing they’re actually looking for, to find all the best tools for the job, to make a guess and evaluate the results. Of course, they can, and will, ask for help, but the decisions and choices need always be their own.
If you guide someone by hand and tell them where to look, they will always rely on you telling them if they’re doing it right. Without a deep understanding of the Essence of whatever they’re doing, whether that’s troubleshooting, meditating, playing guitar, or building planes, they’ll be only able to repeat someone else’s routines, unsure what they mean, and why they are working. In the long run, people would go through the motions that had lost their true meaning centuries ago. Many things might have made sense when they were first established, but if you don’t know what their meaning originally was, you won’t be able to tell when it’s there no more.
Our training doesn’t come in a pre-packaged format. It’s not an Ultimate Solution to All The Things. And it certainly won’t guarantee that as you finish it, you’ll know what to do with every problem you encounter at work. But it will show you what sort of questions to ask, how to probe things, and how to cut through all the irrelevant details right into the core of the problem.
Perhaps this is the only sort of a training there is.

What if the goal was to let go of goals? – How facing the meaninglessness helped me get out of my own way.

Imagine three things you want to achieve or accomplish, three things that would cause you to thrive. It could be this week, this month, or this year…
At the very least, this seems like a harmless exercise… Even if it won’t help you achieve any goals, the worst possible outcome is to stay where you are, right?
Well, if you go deep enough, it can put you in a bottomless spiral of doubt, questioning everything you knew and valued, and staring directly in the eye of The Abyss.

That’s probably not the result Tony Robbins had in mind

This exercise comes from Tony Robbins’ guided meditation I learned at his amazing seminar. I came back feeling I was on the top of the world and used all the tools they provided to keep my ball rolling. And it began rolling quite pretty damn fine.
In less than a month, I would start waking up at 5:30 without an alarm, switch to a super-healthy, mostly plant-based diet, and go from “nope, I’ll never run in my life” to 5k. I lost some weight in result and was in the best shape of my life. I knew that if I manage to maintain this mindset, nothing in the whole world is going to stop me.

If that’s just one month, what can you achieve in a year or few?

As I accomplished my three initial goals, I needed some other things I could look forward to. They told us in the seminar that if you have a great enough reason to get out of bed, you’ll jump right out of it, full of energy and excited for what the day may bring.
I didn’t know what my next top 3 goals could be, but it didn’t bother me much at first. I was sure that if I stay aware and keep tossing away the things that don’t serve me, a true Meaning and Purpose will eventually reveal itself.

Isn’t that how life is supposed to work?

You stay mindful, the chatter in your head becomes less and less intense, and the clarity of Your Truest Self will inevitably shine through the fog. At least, that’s how I imagined it. I kept practicing, running, meditating, and looking for clues.
Life soon gave me a clue, a delightfully absurd one. My company asked me to staff our sponsor booth at TYPO, the biggest design conference in Europe. I’m not a designer myself, but I entertained the idea of becoming one some day, so I was surprised and excited to hear that they chose me.
I would have been even more excited if I didn’t learn later that High Existence organised their first retreat at the very same time. Still, I had a gut feeling that going to this conference will be an important step in clarifying my goals.

And then the customs office arrested our sponsor booth

We staff a lot of events, and I don’t think this had ever happened before. They held us in suspense for two days, asked for more and more documents and clarifications, and eventually decided no single piece of this package is entering the EU, period. I ended up alone in Berlin, with nothing to do, a train back home in 4 days, and a sponsor ticket to the conference. I could as well go and listen to the talks.
For 3 days I would wander aimlessly from one talk to another, speaking to random people, and learning as much as I could. Folks who were respected authorities in their disciplines would walk up the stage and share the stories of how they improvise, make up impostor solutions out of thin air, and have no idea what they’re doing for the most of the time. And then came the final talk, where they would start to question the meaning of design, and of the concept of meaning itself.

I came there with questions to be answered and left with no brains

This talk by Underware was a masterpiece of philosophy disguised as design. I had my mind blown watching it at least hundred times. They brought a guitar player on stage, and the sounds of his guitar would change the shape of a letter ‘a‘ displayed on the screen. They invited a well-known Dutch author to dissect the second, and third, and further layers of meaning in a piece of text, until it became pretty obvious it’s just turtles all the way down.
img_6657

Underware and their concept of quantum typography. Do words or letters carry meaning on their own, or is all meaning in the eye of beholder?

In theory, I already knew everything is arbitrary and the world is inevitably heading towards the Big Freeze. Fast forward enough billion years, and entropy is guaranteed to destroy everything that could have any meaning or value. It’s not like the human race has actually a say in that.

But it’s one thing to know something rationally. Another one is to let yourself feel it.

I could no longer meditate with Tony Robbins on my goals. There was no way I could come up with a goal that would feel meaningful enough to me.
What does it matter even if I teach children around the world, run a marathon, or complete that project at work? In a few hundred years, no one will even know I or these kids existed. In a few billion years, not even the sunlight will remain.

How can you set a goal and be serious about it if you know it has no meaning at all?

I went on a long, deep way down into the emptiness, even though everything in me screamed I should turn away. It’s not easy to confront the meaninglessness of life head on. I got sensitive, nervous, emotionally exhausted, and much less productive in turn.
Hey, I even stopped writing on my blog, for the first time since I started it some 4 years ago. Why should I bother to write something anyway? What would I even want to blog about?

My fiancé kept saying I should get out of my head

We would joke I might as well become a trophy wife, and live the virtuous life of shopping and beauty routines. I would spend a small fortune on Nike’s running clothes, only half-jokingly telling myself I’m worth it. Kim Kierkegaardashian became my beautiful companion in despair.
With nothing better to do, I started hand lettering every day. That was the first thing that came to my mind when asking myself what I enjoyed as a child. I would jokingly say I’d quit my job to advance my lettering career on Instagram. That sounded about as good as any other career I could choose.

Then I realised, it’s not the first time I’m ever seeing this abyss. It’s just the first time I choose not to turn away.

I’ve had some difficult periods in my life. I would drink a lot back then, mostly to numb myself. I would beat the crap out of the 2048 game, going all the way up to 8192 and more. Even this didn’t stop me from playing back then.
Wandering around, lettering, buying sports clothes, and doing it consciously was the single healthiest response I ever had to this shit. I was incredibly lucky I could now face my anxiety without running away into sex, drugs, or games.

But facing your anxiety is neither pleasant nor easy

After a few weeks, my shoulder suddenly went on a strike. I’ve gone from super-healthy-and-fit to “can’t raise my arm high enough to put it on my desk” in two days or less.
I knew it was my body’s way of reflecting the state of my mind, but there was nothing I could do about the state of my mind at that time. The doctor prescribed me some drugs that had “vomit with blood” listed among side effects.

On UPW they would say: if you’re going through hell, keep going

There’s never the right time to go through a fully blown existential crisis, but I wished I hadn’t just started a new project at work in that state. I felt quite insecure in the new role even without considering the meaninglessness of my life. I also knew I’m capable of rebellion and burnout when there’s too much on my plate.
Of course, this new project was as meaningless and futile as everything else, but going through both burnout and existential crisis at once would probably be too much pain to bear. I decided that’s not something I could afford at the moment, and started working much less than I’d normally expect from myself.

Luckily we had vacation planned, and it was coming soon

I was a bit anxious to take two weeks off, as we were quite understaffed. Out of the 8 people working on the project at first, we were down to 4 after a few months, and 2 of us were going offline at the very same time. If I wasn’t simultaneously staring the void in the face, I wouldn’t probably have the guts to leave it alone.
Luckily my project had as little meaning as anything under the Sun. The idea of it falling apart into pieces didn’t feel that much worse than the idea of the whole Universe marching towards maximum entropy.
I left my laptop unpacked, uninstalled Slack from my phone, downloaded Rumi, Eckhart Tolle, and Kapil Gupta on my Kindle, packed my lettering gear, and headed off to Norwegian mountains and waterfalls. Neither my body nor my mind were in their best shape, but I made a strong resolution to accept whatever comes.
Sometimes, this would mean hiking a beautiful trail to one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. Other times, it was standing in the rain in the middle of a parking lot and eating a wet sandwich, wondering why we’re even doing this to ourselves. I must admit it though that the parking lot still had some pretty great views around.
img_8110

With views like this, even a wet, cold sandwich tastes kinda nice. I’d still prefer a dry and warm one though.

Surprisingly, the world didn’t fall apart while I was away

I work with some really smart folks who figure things out for a living. As you can guess, they did a great job figuring out what to do, and it turned out much better than if I had it all planned in advance. The project is moving forward at full speed, all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into the right spots somehow, and I’m not sure why people give me credits for that. All I actually did was getting out of the way.

Looking for some goals to strive toward, I found that all I actually needed was to let go

There’s many different things for me to let go of. The desire to control the process to make sure it doesn’t go sideways. The attachment to the results that this process will hopefully produce. The identity I might build for myself if the results turn out in my favour.
Luckily, there is great freedom in letting go of it all. If nothing really matters, I might as well do anything, even the craziest and scariest things I ever had on my mind.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? Something worse than the Sun swallowing the Earth in a few billion years? Perfect! No matter what I do, I’m not going to screw it all up much more…

I don’t feel like I finally found the Purpose in life

Quite the contrary, the burden of finding it is off my shoulders at last. I can focus on whatever is in front of my nose right now, without worrying about all the things that might or might not happen, and whether their outcome would be better or worse.
There’s so much more for me to learn, to explore, to play with, or savour. Why not play that little role of mine in this big Cosmic circus as joyfully as I can?
One thing that brings me such joy is the hand lettering I recently started. It has no purpose at all, and it’s delightful to lose myself in it. As a side effect, I can sometimes make beautiful gifts for my friends. I didn’t plan for this outcome, and it’s better than anything I could actually ask for.
img_8339

A wedding card I did for my friends. Or rather, a very special wedding card for some very special friends.

Without the pressure to find meaning, I can open myself to that creative energy that moves all things. However you call it, (The Force is my preferred term of choice), this energy can take you places your mind couldn’t possibly fathom. All you have to do is to let it.

For now, it’s taking me to the second High Existence retreat that will take place in October. I have zero idea what we’ll create there yet, but I’m absolutely certain it will be out of this world.

Would you sign up for voluntary brainwashing? Well, maybe you should.

Have you ever understood something rationally, but felt emotionally paralysed deep down inside and not quite ready to make a move? You’re not alone. There were decisions I’d been putting off for months, even though I knew what’s the right thing to do.
One of them was leaving my corporate job and applying for a new one. What if I never find a better job than this? What if I don’t make friends at a new workplace? I don’t even know how to look for a job, or have enough skills… Such thoughts would keep me occupied for long enough that some of my less afraid friends would change their jobs twice in the meantime and get their salary doubled.

Whenever I finally made the move, I was wondering why it took me so long

Even though I’m better at making tough choices now, there are many things I understand rationally that still trigger crazy emotional responses in me.
I thought this would calm down if I meditated enough. Turns out that meditation cuts out all the noise so you can experience everything more fully and intensely – including the difficult emotions I’d rather not experience at all. That’s not super helpful when trying to do something productive.

What if you could instantly change your emotional reaction to things instead of beating yourself up?

I know it’s possible.
I gave up smoking almost effortlessly while reading Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. Hey, I didn’t even read it with an intention to quit smoking in the first place! This book made me realise what needs I tried to fulfil with smoking, and how can I fulfil those very same needs in a much more awesome way.
This was over two years ago, and while many of my friends had quit smoking and then started again, I hadn’t had a single cigarette ever since.
There were some stressful times, and some crazy times, and some times when I felt like hitting my head against the wall, but I never thought that smoking a cigarette would help me relax. That association in my head is completely gone, and now I’m wondering how the heck it ended up there in the first place.

If a book can have such impact, what could you achieve in real life?

This curiosity made me sign up for Tony’s signature seminar – Unleash The Power Within.  I never thought I’d attend a self-help seminar, but my shifting attitude towards smoking showed me he’s certainly doing something right. I was also feeling quite overwhelmed with the number of work and personal projects I have on my plate right now, and thought I could use some help in managing them all.
I didn’t read anything about this event in advance, and so wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
There’s one thing I didn’t expect for sure.

A NON STOP 4 DAY PARTY

When we entered the room on the first day, we were welcomed by lasers, club music and people jumping on the stage. This wasn’t a random choice. As it turns out, what you do with your physical body is the single most important thing that affects how you’re feeling.
The more you dance, jump, and celebrate, the more energy you’ll have and more likely you’ll feel like there are great reasons to celebrate. After 4 days of jumping around, I can testify this true.
But the event wasn’t only jumping around. In between the carefully scheduled party times there was some serious emotional work going on.
Session after session after session, we examined and questioned the language we use, what needs matter to us the most and what means we use to meet them, our values, attitude towards money and most importantly beliefs about ourselves and the future.

You could get all this information for a fraction of the price. But information is not what we came for.

Like the past me afraid to quit my job, you can have all the information in the world and still feel unable to process it emotionally. It’s implementing what you learned in real life that makes the real difference. That’s why the whole event was designed around reprogramming yourself and changing how your gut reacts to things, thoughts and beliefs.
And designed it was perfectly, I must admit. Everything – from the music, to lights, to animations, to dance moves, to group and pair exercises, to staff welcoming us at the venue, was designed to make us feel certain ways, and break everyone out of old, unproductive patterns.
We were certainly hypnotised, in the best possible sense. On the very first day all 13 000 (yes, thirteen thousands!) participants got outside to walk on burning coals, and did that while cheering and screaming ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’.
Everyone was so programmed for success that there wasn’t even time to doubt whether that’s the right idea. Sure, it felt scary, but everyone was so excited to become a firewalker that this excitement became contagious, and there was simply no way to give into fear.
If you’re wondering how walking on burning coal feels like, I’m happy to tell you it’s a gentle breeze when compared with diving in freezing cold water. It also lasts a small fraction of that.

If that sounds a bit like brainwashing, you’re probably right.

Still, would you rather keep your brain dirty and polluted with self-criticism, self-sabotage, or a million reasons to punish yourself? 
They said it’s not possible to feel depressed during the event, and they were right. If someone could trick me into feeling that powerful, awesome and capable of achieving anything every single day, I’d happily sign up and pay for that.
But we all knew we’d be going back home quite soon, and so spent a good amount of time learning to brainwash reprogram ourselves in an instant whenever we get stuck in an unproductive state. I have still a lot to practice in this area, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.
One of the most powerful experiences in reprogramming myself was the Dickens Process – a teardown of how the bullshit you believe will affect you in 5, 10, or 20 years. At first I was quite indifferent, as my life is pretty amazing right now and even if I didn’t change a single thing I’d really have no reasons to complain. But then I realised how much more I could be and contribute if I wasn’t that anxious and overwhelmed, and what a horrible waste such indifference would make. I realised I can be both happy with where I am now, and striving for making a greater impact in the world.

If you’re considering UPW to get some answers, it’s most likely not the right place.

I don’t feel like I have an easy answer to anything, there’s only more and more questions. The exercises we did have shaken up a lot of beliefs I had about my body (I hate cardio!), my finances (I shouldn’t ever need more money than I have right now), or my capabilities (I can only do one thing at a time, and everything else will fall apart while I do that).
I can see through a lot of bullshit I kept repeating in my own head, but haven’t fully replaced it with more useful beliefs yet. This also means I’m not quite sure now who I am right now and what exactly it is what I hope to become. Once in a freefall, always in a freefall.
Even though I didn’t get all the answers, I came back with something much better than this. It’s an awesome set of tools to use movement, language and focus to get me out of my head whenever I’m feeling bad, and into a much more happy and productive state.
There’s only so long you can be upset or angry if you put on Rihanna and jump around with the silliest dance moves.
Trust me, I tried.

Is your drive to perfection holding you back?

This moon is shit – said someone at a party last night. – It’s not even an accurate representation of the terrain.
Yeah, I see what you mean. – I said. – That’s 3D printing with a light inside, so they had to add an extra layer for the basins to make them dark, and vice versa.
I don’t care. It’s simply shit.

That moon was a birthday gift from me to Pola on her last birthday, and I loved it so much I got another one for myself. Yes, I’d prefer the high parts to be actually high and the low parts to be low, but you know what? That’s absolutely the most freaking awesome lamp I ever head. I don’t care if it’s accurate or not, all I care is I have a funkin moon in my room that brings the silliest grin on my face every time I see it.

If only I could chill about my work like I chill about my moon

I love my job and I’m good at what I’m doing. Even writing this sentence feels super weird. It’s hard for me to be proud of my own achievements, lest someone finds some mistakes in it – wouldn’t that be a proof there’s nothing to be proud of?
I’m working through a video leadership course right now, and had to write my farewell letter as I leave the company a few years from now, as well as comments of grateful colleagues. The letter was the easy part. However, pretending to be other people complimenting on my work turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I expected.
I never knew writing nice things about myself would feel so awkward and unnatural. I like myself in general. I know I’m likeable, even if a little weird. Yet my own work to me feels like my moon felt to that friend. No matter how awesome it is, one imperfect detail will ruin the whole effect.

It’s hard to find happiness if everything has to be perfect

I need to remind myself how much progress I made. Sometimes I need to remind this to myself a few times per week. I was a prodigy kid winning one competition after another, and expected no less than winning. When I went to college and couldn’t keep up, I gave it all up altogether. If you’re hardwired to win, anything less than perfect feels simply like shit.
But if your feeling like shit keeps holding you back from all the awesome stuff you would otherwise do, you’re in deep trouble. There’s only so much you can do that is perfect, and so much more that can have great impact being just good enough.
Believing my work is good enough is hard. It means pushing it out to the world even if you know it could be improved, and that someone will point that out. It’s not easy to accept any feedback, if deep down you believe you’re worthless unless you’re perfect. If only I could spend another hour, day, or month, I would show them how good I can be…

Nobody cares about how good you can be. They only care what is done.

If your work is perfect, but several years late, that’s several years with no solution to a problem that had to be solved. If that problem didn’t really have to be solved, why even bother spending so much time on it? I used to think my drive to perfection lets me help people in the best way possible. In fact, I’m helping people much less than I could be, if I wasn’t so insecure and afraid of critique.
Yes, my moon would be better if the topography was right. Yes, perhaps in another few years they’ll make an accurate one. No, that doesn’t mean an imperfect moon lamp is worse than no moon lamp at all. In fact it’s a freaking amazing moon lamp, and I’m super happy I have one.

What would YOU compliment yourself for?

I learned a lot doing that compliment exercise. It made me want to become the person who deserves those compliments. If that means lowering my impossible standards to give my team what they need most, so be it. I know I’m smart, talented, and have great ideas. No amount of mistakes, feedback, or criticism is ever going to change that.

How much trust do you have in the ground beneath you? – What navigating underwater taught me about navigating through life.

What was the scariest thing you’ve ever experienced?
I never thought what mine would be, until I ended up there.
It all started with an exercise in navigation on advanced diving course. I was supposed to set my compass to a nearby island, dive 10 meters deep and navigate towards that island underwater, until I reach the rocks and reef around it.
Doesn’t sound that hard, does it?
I started out very carefully, making sure I don’t descent too fast, and don’t drift away in the opposite direction. Then after a few minutes of staring at my compass and diving computer, I realised I am surrounded by a

PERFECT. FEATURELESS. VOID.

I was too high above the sea bottom to see it at all. I was too far away from that island to see where it was. I was too far ahead of my companions to see where they were.
All I could see was blue, perfect featureless blue in every direction. And the air bubbles going up, so at least I knew where was up.

That’s probably the closest I will ever get to free floating in outer space. I never knew floating in outer space would be so freaking scary.

I panicked so hard that I rushed towards the island as soon as I could, then bursted into tears when I finally saw some rocks underneath me. I didn’t think of slowing down even then, the divemaster and my fiancé both had to chase me for a while. For the next 30 minutes, I only dreamed of swimming back to the surface, despite the underwater magic and beauty all around me.
I couldn’t quite make sense of this experience, until I remembered how I felt right after joining Automattic.
It was a big change for me, from Korean corporate culture that was semi-military, to being in charge of when, where, how, why, and how much I would work. “Like all the walls, floor and ceiling around me suddenly disappeared, and I was in a free fall”, that’s how I described it back then.
That was a very accurate metaphor.

A free fall feels exciting, liberating, and out of this world. It’s also absolutely frightening, and not quite optimal when you want to actually get some stuff done.

As much as I loved the experience of a free fall when bungee jumping, I do appreciate having some ground under my feet in everyday life. I like to know it’s there. I’m happy I don’t have to think about it when I’m trying to get from one place to another.

If I couldn’t trust the floor in my high-rise apartment, I would panic each time I walk from my bedroom to kitchen.

It’s good to trust my accountant that I am compliant with all tax regulations and won’t go to jail.

It’s good to trust the company I work for they will pay me for my work at the end of each month.

It’s good to trust the city transport system that subway cars were tested, regularly checked and won’t suddenly burst into flames.

It’s good to trust the engineers who built my apartment block that it’s stable enough and won’t collapse even when the weather is harsh.

It’s good to trust the people I find most inspiring that if I do X I’ll have a good life.

That’s why navigating underwater was so hard. Without seeing the ground, the horizon, or a guide before me, all I could trust back then was myself.

You probably barely notice what makes up the ground under your feet. Until it starts feeling wobbly, and then you’re in the free fall again.

I have a whole system of beliefs I use to make sense of the world. Everyone does. This is the only way we can make any choices, or get anything accomplished at all.
The beliefs themselves might be completely irrational, and I might have no idea they exist, but they still affect what I do and how I think. I’m not running around paranoid worrying my house will collapse, because I trust and believe that this is not going to happen.
However, every once in a while my trust in the ground beneath gets shattered. Something I believed would not be going to happen suddenly happens, and leaves me stumped. I’m in a new situation where my old habits and ways of problem solving no longer work. People change so much I can hardly recognize them. Communities fail to give me the support and care I need. Someone I used to admire doesn’t seem that wise anymore.
This process is both scary and exciting, just like the free fall. If things so basic and obvious start to fall apart, what will happen next? Will I ever be able to trust anything or anyone again?
Navigating life with no stable ground underneath is like navigating underwater with nothing in sight. You have your compass there, of course, but it was you who set it up after all. Do you have that much trust in yourself, when you can’t even trust the institutions or authority figures you used to have so much faith in?

I thought that once I finally understand how the world works, I will avoid such disappointments. But then I realised, the stable ground is not as stable as it seems.

I used to have unconditional trust in my sense of sensemaking. I never thought there is another way. I had certain ideas about how the world works and who I am and I trusted them with all my heart.
Some of these ideas turned out to be total bullshit. Some others, I still hold, but with a grain of doubt.
This doesn’t mean I no longer trust anyone or anything. Nor that I hold every opinion as equal. In everyday life I put as much trust in my accountant, company, city transport system, or construction engineers as I used to.
However, I can see now how all beliefs are incomplete, arbitrary, and subject to refinement.
For all practical purposes, I’m the co-owner of a nice apartment and a safety cushion on my bank account. I do trust the institutions that confirm my ownership of both and there’s no point in me or anyone else acting otherwise.
Unfortunately, if there’s ever a war in my country, it’s probable that my whole block will be torn down to the ground, and all the money on my bank account will be worth less than a few bottles of vodka. This doesn’t lessen my trust in government institutions or banks. But if one day I find myself in a situation like this (hopefully not), my beliefs about the things I own will need to be refined.
For all practical purposes, it’s good to assume the sky is above your head and the Earth is beneath your feet. But if you find yourself floating underwater, you’d better find another way of making sense where you are and where you want to go.

It’s okay to cherrypick, iterate and have mixed feelings – that’s how you learn and grow.

One thing that stopped me from refining my beliefs was hoping for a complete system that will answer all of my questions. I used to think there is an ultimate answer, and people have either got it figured or not. If someone is a Wise Man, he must have all the answers right. He wouldn’t be a Wise Man otherwise, would he?

In result, whenever I admired someone’s way of thinking, but then found a flaw in it, my trust in them got broken. I was disappointed to hear that Steve Jobs rejected evidence-based medicine, he seemed like a smart guy to me before. If he was so wrong about such basic things, could anything he ever said have any worth at all?

Only with time I realised it’s perfectly possible to hold both very wise and utterly confused beliefs at the same time. Even Nobel Prize laureates can be deeply wrong on some topics that are not the main area of their expertise. Even an arrogant self-help guru can have some wise insights on life.

Again, realising this was both frightening and liberating. Frightening, because I could no longer have absolute trust in any philosophy, community or person, no matter how smart they seemed. Liberating, because I no longer had to defend obvious bullshit when I found it in my idols, and could still enjoy the good parts of a system I don’t trust as a whole.

It’s good to build my sense of how the world works on the shoulders of the finest philosophers, scientists and spiritual leaders.

It’s even better to sometimes verify if all their beliefs are equally valid and true.

And this I can only do all alone, navigating with my compass in hand.

Forget New Year’s resolutions. Let’s relax, stay present, and enjoy the ride instead.

If I were to judge 2017 by the resolutions I made in the first week, I should probably consider it a failure. Last year, I gave up on ambitious New Year plans and committed myself to just 3 basic things – cooking, blogging, and working out.
It turns out, New Year’s resolutions are another thing I should probably give up on completely. I still only work out when there’s a gym next door (luckily I live right next to one), still only cook when my brother comes over, and blog much less frequently than I planned to.
Still, even though I didn’t complete any of these simple three items, I’m amazed by how much I have achieved this past year. Day to day, it usually feels like struggling to get out of bed, and drinking crazy amounts of coffee to keep myself going. Only looking back I can see that during these few months, I:
There’s no way I could have planned most of these things. A year ago I’d never make a resolution to write for a kids’ magazine, the one that I work with hadn’t existed yet at that time. Should I have focused on my blogging goal and kindly refused to join them until this one is met? Sometimes the best choice is to reevaluate plans, give up on everything that’s not necessary, and jump into the unknown.
This year I’m not even trying to create a resolution list. My only resolution is to always stay present and aware of the choices in front of me. In practice, this means to continue meditating and keep my Internet distractions under control – these are two things that helped me most in navigating through life. Whenever I’m stuck in my head, I feel like banging this very head against a wall. Meditation and freeing myself from distractions both help me see much more clearly, and gain more control of what I do with my hours and days.
The end of a year is usually a time of summaries, reflections, and planning ahead. I always enjoyed the quiet moments when I could redesign my site, and in the process also redesign myself. This year, there’s so much going on that I can barely keep track of it all. If all goes well, I may complete an advanced diving course on shipwrecks and coral reefs, teach two workshops in India, write another great article, and book a wedding venue without even returning to Poland, all by the end of this month. If that’s just January, who knows what else can happen during the rest of the year? 😉

When you hear the Cosmos calling, what do you do?

Most probably, panic. Then panic again.
“The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be.” That’s the opening of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, and of a book that has the same title. A few years ago, when I felt really stuck, this book opened my eyes to a whole Universe of wonder. For the first time in years I felt the same awe and excitement as a kid discovering how the world works. I’m not sure how I lost it in the first place, but public education and peer pressure could have something to do with that.
Carl’s Cosmos showed me how incredibly beautiful, mysterious, and fragile is the place that we live in. Without dedicated attention, this awareness can easily get buried under a pile of breaking news in the Facebook feed. But I couldn’t unsee the wonder all around me, and felt a strong need to share it with the world. This blog came to life as a very rough attempt to do so. That’s why it’s called Made in Cosmos.

Can the sense of wonder survive as a kid grows up?

Meditating on this question, I had this great idea in the back of my mind. I should start an online portal for kids, about science, and coding, and philosophy, and all the great things in life. There would be interactive articles with rich animations, Q&A about literally everything, peer support groups, and super smart games and puzzles to solve. If there’s any hope for humanity, it’s in teaching kids now, for sure.
When I first had this idea, I gave up on it fast. I had a corporate job, nearly no money put aside, and no one passionate enough to work with me on this. Also, I had zero experience writing articles for kids, drawing illustrations or animating them, no formal education in teaching, and terrible management skills. It was ridiculous to think I could ever tackle such project.
Still the idea would come back to me over and over again in these rare moments of clarity. It would scare me to death every single time, make me question all of my live choices so far, and leave me broken to pieces for several days.

If an idea scares you to death, that’s great. This is how you know it’s one worth pursuing.

No wonder my cosmic project for kids felt super scary even to think about it. I had a polished vision of the end result in mind, without the faintest clue what first step would possibly bring me closer to that goal. Every time I pondered upon this question, the only thing that came to my mind was to quit my job – which I didn’t want to do, and so I ended up resigned and helpless.
When it comes to Big Scary Stuff, it’s okay not to know what a first step could be. What I learned is that a good enough first step is to do your own thing, and to keep an eye opened on opportunities laying around.

There’s always opportunities around, if you’re paying attention.

The Cosmos found me co-organising a coding workshop for women. This is where I first heard about a fundraising campaign to kickstart Cosmos for the Girls. They wanted to publish a magazine for girls that would show them a whole Universe of possibilities, while most tell them only how to look.
I didn’t know who stood behind this, but I knew these were my kind of people. I decided to reach out and see if I could help. As it turned out, they really needed someone to write about technology for them. The previous person backed off just a few days before.

Hi, this is Sylwia! I’m calling from the Cosmos…

Writing my first article wasn’t an easy process. The impostor syndrome hit me quite hard, as it always does. This blog was my only attempt at writing so far, so who am I to send my article to seasoned journalists and authors? I literally had to trick myself into this, and to do it more than once.
Luckily, writing a single article isn’t nearly as scary as starting a whole site from scratch. And I had something most journalists don’t have – years of experience in translating technical stuff into simple terms. I’d never have thought that my experience in customer support would help me write for kids. Turns out it’s pretty much the same thing, only more fun cause you get to choose what you will write about.
IMG_4461

My first article – “Can you teach a computer to draw?” Whoever drew that girl in the corner, must know me really, really well…

Fast forward a few months, I have two of my articles published, and another one under review. All 10,000 copies of the first issue were sold out, and we had to reprint it. It feels quite surreal to see my name in a nation-wide magazine, but it never was on my bucket list. All I dreamed of was to share a little piece of the Cosmos with as many kids as I could, and to help them nurture the seed of wonder in their hearts.
Carl Sagan passed away on this day 21 years ago. I’m not sure if that’s how the Girls of the Cosmos chose this day for the next editorial meeting, but I know his spirit will be with us. He’s with every curious wonderer, no matter how young or how old, who looks up to the sky and asks questions.