The tree that grew on a rock

There’s at least few of them on every hiking trail in the world. The heroic trees that grow in places where no trees should ever grow. You can see all odds are against them, but for some crazy reason they keep on surviving.
On a bare rock. 300 feet above the ground. On the shaded side of a canyon. With nothing to hold onto, no access to nourishing water, sometimes even the sun. Growing sideways, twisted ways, roots hanging down off a cliff, looking worn out and tired.
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Photo: Jos

I can’t help feeling sorry for these trees. Life hasn’t treated them fair. With nowhere to stretch their roots, all their lives was a struggle to survive. They never had enough water, enough energy, or enough support. They can’t even pack all their stuff and start a new life somewhere else.
If I were one of these trees, I’d probably complain a lot. All the other trees in the forest have enough resources to live by, and never have to worry about the weather breaking them down. They grow tall and beautiful, much taller and much more beautiful than my sad little tree self will ever have a chance to be.
Why am I not allowed to fulfil my true tree potential?
Is it karma? Bad luck? What have I done in my previous tree life to deserve this?
Or maybe the Universe hates me for no reason at all?

***

I am not one of these trees. I had a lot luck in my life, and I’m really grateful for it. I don’t know where I would be now if I wasn’t so lucky.
Maybe that’s why watching these trees grow is such a profound experience to me. They don’t know how to complain. They don’t know how to compare their lives with all their tree peers around.
They simply take all they have, and grow it into the most beautiful thing that they can.

Post-communist minimalism – what if we stopped chasing things before we have it all?

Joshua from Becoming Minimalist just posted an excellent article on what he learned about minimalism on his trip to Poland. It strongly resonates with me, not just because it’s about my home country. After decades of extreme scarcity, minimalism seems quite abstract for most Polish people. At the same time, we need it much more than we might think.
I was born in Poland in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall collapsed. This makes me the first generation raised in a free country, with all sorts of goods available in a free market. My parents, on the other hand, spent their entire youth under communist regime. For years food was only available with ration stamps, and people would queue up for hours to get some.
Growing up, I wondered what made my parents keep certain things in our crowded apartment. They never gave away a single book – even encyclopaedias outdated by decades. There was a yarn set older than me in one of the closets, which my mum intended to use – someday, when she retires. She hasn’t retired yet.

With time I realised minimalism is a first world privilege.

If tomorrow there might not be even bread or toilet paper in stores, you learn to buy things just in case – everything you can, as much as you can.
In communism people didn’t have much, so they clung to the few things they did. Their lives literally depended on these precious things. When you grow up like this, it’s hard to change this mindset later in life, even when supermarket shelves are full of everything you’ll ever need (and more).
In Poland we’re still nowhere near the wealth of America or Western Europe. There’s still many families struggling with serious poverty, unable to afford the most basic commodities. But even those of us who live comfortable lives always compare Poland with just the few richest countries. In result, we’re quite dissatisfied with what we have.
As a kid, I watched many folks fantasise about America, the land of abundance and endless opportunities. Growing up in scarcity, we used to believe that having more would solve all of our problems, or at least the most.
We didn’t know abundance also has its dark side. Most of us never had a chance to experience it. “Money doesn’t buy happiness” is only true if you have enough food to feed your family. If you don’t, money does in fact buy you a lot of it.

Even though minimalism is a privilege, it’s also a necessity.

Nowadays, most of us luckily have our basic needs met. This means we have a choice to fix our relationship with money and possessions, before we get caught up in wanting more and more.
It’s tempting to think that we can only be happy once we reach the standards of living of our peers in the West. But once we get to know them and their daily struggles, we soon learn that these people in America or France living the live of our dreams are as dissatisfied with what they have as we are.
Polish folks hardly contemplate that 80% of the world can only dream of the luxuries we take now for granted. Looking up to those few countries richer than us, it’s easy to lose track of how much we already have.
Even though we’re not that caught in overconsumption yet, now is the best time for us to consider minimalism. It’s a great way to make sure than in the search of true happiness, we don’t end up instead with just a pile of stuff.

Automattic and the perfect work/love balance

Two years ago my friend told me he works for the best company in the world, and that I should totally apply. All the things he mentioned – extreme trust and openness for discussion, fully distributed environment that lets you work from anywhere in the world, a complete disregard for job titles, or unlimited vacation – sounded too good to be true.
The more I read and heard about how it all works like, the more I got to believe this is no hippie dream, but an actual profit-making company with hundreds of employees. I fell in love in Automattic and asked Artur to help me prepare for the trial. In the process, I fell in love with him as well.
Two years later, we got engaged on our way to the company Grand Meetup. We’d arrived a few days early in Canada to spend some time around Banff. This was one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited on our last year’s extreme road trip, but didn’t have enough time to fully enjoy back then. On the top of a mountain that was a Cosmic Ray Observatory, surrounded by beautiful views, the most fascinating man I know asked me to become his wife. The next day we were in Whistler with all 600 of our work colleagues, celebrating this.
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Artur and I on our way to Gondola peak.

We’re not the only couple here at Automattic. Many of our teammates brought their partners along with them, many more wish they could do it someday. This alone is the most powerful sign of how great our company is. There’s not much better things you can say about a job than “I really wish the love of my life could spend the most of their days this way”.
This is not just because of the incredible perks the job has to offer, but mostly due to the kind of folks it attracts. Our CEO Matt Mullenweg truly believes in WordPress and open source, and only hires the people who believe in that too. We’re passionate about making the web a better place, and we mean it. You can feel this passion overflowing in our Slack channels, internal blog posts, and wherever we meet in person.
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Silly company photo selfie. Getting 600 folks together in one picture is no easy job!

We’re also having fun along the way. The stuffed bear in our hotel lobby became a good friend of ours, and has his own blog on WordPress.com now. The meetup ended with a  “Prom / formal through decades” themed party, but I wasn’t the only one to interpret this as an occasion to get all dressed up in galaxies and glitter. Actually, I thought I’m quite serious about my Cosmos and glitter, but one girl took the space game to a whole different level, rocking a skirt with LED stars. Another one of my teammates asked our CEO to be her prom date on that day – and actually, he didn’t say no 🙂
Of course, amazing doesn’t mean problem-free. Since I joined, I’ve had my fair share of frustration, misunderstanding, overtime work, and feeling that we don’t care enough. Working from home with my partner for the same company means that many work issues turn into personal ones. But while problems will naturally arise wherever there are human beings, it’s the way they are handled that makes all the difference. It’s incredibly impressive how our folks are able to put their own agendas aside, and work together towards a solution, even when the discussion gets heated.
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CEO Town Hall. We managed to wrap up at 11pm this time, which was a real challenge with so much to talk about.

I’ve always been proud to be a part of this company, and now I’m more proud than ever before. All the discussions, classes, activities, and informal parties this week helped me understand not just how we can move our work forward, but also a huge deal about myself. This wouldn’t be possible without the incredible colleagues that make up the Automattic team. I’m honoured to have such amazing people in my life, and would love to see all of my friends flourish in an environment like this. If you’re on the edge, remember that we’re always hiring, and I’ll be always happy to help you prepare.
On the last day of our Grand Meetup, Artur and I did the one thing that people don’t normally do at work. Who we are now is largely thanks to the amazing culture of Automattic, so we asked our CEO to come to our wedding one day. And you know what? Actually, he didn’t say no 🙂

Zen in the art of traditional singing

I used to believe I had permanently destroyed my voice.

As a teenager I sang serious classical stuff in various choirs and music school. Then I moved in to a student dorm, and switched to screaming on top of my lungs while drinking and smoking heavily.

After a year or two of such practice, I could no longer sing opera. I would jokingly say that at least I sound like Freddy Mercury now, but I was all devastated inside. Losing my precious voice was the only thing I ever truly regretted in my whole life.

***

Only after several long years I finally got the courage to join a singing workshop again. I chose traditional folk as there’s a part of my soul that has always strongly resonated with it. Besides, it’s so different from opera that I wouldn’t spend too much energy comparing how I sounded with what used to be.

The weeklong workshops I’d signed up for were organised by Fundacja OVO. This is a Polish non-profit established to promote Eastern European traditional folk culture and music. As it turns out, there’s an amazing community built around them as well. There were almost 70 people attending the workshops, most of whom had known one another already for a long time.

We were getting split into 4 workshop groups, so on the first day we all had a chance to take a short demo class with each of the teachers, and choose the one that worked best for us. For the most of the time we were learning beautiful polyphonic songs from Ukraine and Serbia. Only one of the teachers – Witek – didn’t prepare any songs for his demo class at all.

Unlike other lessons, this one consisted entirely of laying down on the floor, running around on tip toes while making awkward sounds, or violating personal space of complete strangers and vice versa. After half an hour of this madness we were asked to start improvising a melody, all of us at the same time. What I heard during these few minutes got me so intrigued I decided to join that group in the end.

***

Our class of 10 was the smallest one. This was a good thing cause all the crazy stuff we did required a lot of trust, and we were able to built that trust much faster than we would in a larger group.

When we weren’t exploring the most awkward forms of physical contact like massaging someone’s back with the tip of your head, or laying down on their belly trying to synchronise breaths, we would ridicule ourselves in other creative ways. There was shouting nonsense stuff to a tree on the other side of the road. There was purring like a cat as loud as we could. There was a whole concert of goat and sheep sounds, with different experiments that aimed at making them sound more goaty. If anyone used to consider themselves as a serious adult human being, there was no way to maintain that facade after a day or two.

Once we finally got to practice some singing still on our first day, it wasn’t as smooth and easy as I thought it would be. I was terrified to hear my voice collapse near the end. I asked Witek if it’s normal to end the workshop with a sore throat – he said it’s not normal at all. I went straight back to my room, almost certain I will never be able to sing again.

I decided to take as much care of my voice as I could during these few days. This meant no alcohol, no fizzy drinks, and breathing gymnastics practice every morning. At first it felt weird when I came to a party with a bottle of still water. Soon I felt weird it ever made me feel weird.

***

One of my biggest discoveries was an exercise in intention. One person had a wall a few meters behind their back. The other one was supposed to push them against that wall as fast as they could. Both sides fought hard and it took a decent while for each of us to complete the goal.

Then we were asked to do the same thing with a focused intention to push, and using a sound to help. Never in my life have I heard such a battle cry, especially performed by women. Every single one of us ended up on the wall in no time. This worked even when we already knew what to expect.

Another revelation came when we were lying down in a circle. Witek guided us to relax every single part of the body one at a time, just like during my favourite meditation for sleep. Then we watched our breaths for a longer while and were asked to make a long lasting sound with each outbreath. What followed was an incredible concert of magical, otherworldly harmonies. I felt totally hypnotised, hearing my own voice resonate with the others in ways I never knew possible until then.

“See, we naturally tend toward the harmony.” – our teacher said later – “The harmony is already here between us. If you find yourself constantly out of tune, ask yourself: What am I doing here that doesn’t let me harmonise with the world around me?”.

***

This was the day when I finally stopped struggling so much. At one point I just watched myself, hearing a song flow effortlessly through me for the first time. Somehow I just tuned into the stream and followed along with all the ups and downs.

As soon as I got it right, I realised what I’d been doing wrong for the whole time. Whenever there was a part of the song I considered difficult, I’d clutch the throat and my whole body, getting ready to tackle the challenge. Once I stopped behaving as if I had an exam to pass and chose to have fun with the song instead, all that tension was gone and the sound could just flow with no resistance.

This observation didn’t just help me with folk singing, but with every single area of my life. As soon as I let go of the pressure to perform, incredible things start coming to me naturally. If you’re struggling with a similar pressure or tension, you might consider doing something utterly ridiculous – like crawling on the floor using no hands, or making goat sounds for 15 minutes. You won’t be able to feel so serious about yourself after that for too long.

Dirty little hacks – how I trick my monkey mind to get stuff done on time

Whoever said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”, has most probably never had a job at all. Even doing the most awesome stuff, with the most amazing colleagues by your side, there’s always going to be angry customers to deal with, unpopular decisions to be made, or difficult conversations to engage in. Loving the job you’re doing makes these things even harder, because you care A LOT.
At the same time, there’s nothing to stop you from procrastinating on the hard things when working remotely. This combined with my perfectionist tendencies, makes me often get stuck and avoid that burdensome problem for ages, only to find out it’s already the end of the day, and I’ve hardly done anything productive at all. In a result-only work environment you can only fool yourself for so long.
Luckily, with the help of a few great books and blogs I’m slowly learning to overcome that resistance and do stuff on time even if I totally don’t feel like it. Usually the things I totally don’t feel like doing are also the things worth doing the most, so there’s great value in mastering that skill. Some of the dirty tricks I learned are obvious, some other ones are absurd or silly, but all helped me already in this or other way. If you’re having a hard time getting down to work, you might want to give them a try as well.

1. Start in the middle

Ever tried to write an email or article and spent an hour wondering where to start? Sometimes crafting that one perfect first paragraph is so hard I’d end up tweaking and rewriting it for ages, and give up altogether in the end.
You simply can’t write a perfect opening without knowing what will follow next. And as much as I tried to organise the whole essays in my head, I could never predict what would follow before actually writing it all down. Often it would turn out that adding every new sentence broke the logical flow of the whole, so I’d rewrite everything again without ever moving forward.
What I learned is that it’s much easier to solve a puzzle if you have all the pieces laid out in front of you. Right now I start doing the easiest parts first, write down all I know as a stream of consciousness, and only start outlining the structure once I know how much the whole piece is going to cover. Writing titles and intros had never been easier than this.

2. Write down 20 ideas instead of 10

This one is from James Altucher, and it’s one of the best creativity tricks I’ve ever tried. It doesn’t just apply to blog post ideas or titles, I try it in all areas of professional and personal life.
If I have no clue where to start with any project, it usually means I’m waiting for the perfect answer to fall down on me all at once. Of course, that perfect solution never comes by itself – it’s a result of trying different things and building on whatever works.
If I can’t come up with 10 ideas for something, setting the bar at 20 means some of them will be absurdly, ridiculously bad. Accepting that fact is often enough to get me unstuck, try more creative answers, and eventually come up with one that makes sense.

3. Pretend you’re not actually doing it

Okay, this one is actually quite embarrassing. The main idea is: if you can’t force yourself to do something, trick your monkey brain into believing you’re actually doing something else. It sounds too silly to be true, and I wish I needn’t resort to that kind of hacks, but it helped me more times than I would like to admit.
Examples? When stuck on a difficult problem at work, I would often try escalating it to a colleague. Before I send it away, I summarise everything I know in an informal, internal note. In 90% cases, by the time I’m finished writing that note I already know what I should do to solve this, and do all by myself what seemed impossible at first.
Writing my blog posts in WordPress editor sometimes felt too stressful, so I moved on to a private notebook in Evernote. Then I realised having that notebook named “blog” still puts a lot of pressure on me, so I started a new one called “Cosmos” to get rid of all references to blogging. Here I can pretend I write it all just for myself, and that these notes will never be seen by anyone but me. Many of them won’t, but that’s totally okay.
Working on other personal projects I also use the same trick. When I had no idea what to write in my WordCamp presentation, I started by setting up a whole demo store, with lots of photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, weird product descriptions and a few silly puns. I only used the site to take a few screenshots which I could have obtained in much easier way, but doing fun stuff like this got me really going, and before I even realised I had half of the presentation done.

4. Set a timer and block everything off

This is the hardcore way for tasks that have no easy parts and can’t be turned into something fun (where is the fun part of doing a tax report?). I found it recommended on the zen habits blog, and decided to give it a try, as doing my taxes surely requires some Zen master skills. This is the simplest exercise ever, even though it can be quite uncomfortable at times.
When I need to do something I’d rather not to, I set 10 minutes on my timer. For these 10 minutes I’m only allowed to do that one task – or stare blankly at it. Applications like Focus can help block off the digital distractions, but the best results come when I don’t allow myself any kind of break (and believe me, the urge to go and grab a glass of water is usually strong!).
Once these 10 minutes are over, I can take a break, bring that glass of water at last, procrastinate a little bit again, until I’m ready for another try. After the third cycle staring at the screen can get really boring, and I end up doing the work I am supposed to. If I’m lucky, I might find myself still doing it even after the time has passed.
Encouraged by success with the most dreadful things, I recently started applying this technique to everyday work. I still haven’t found the interval that makes me most productive though. 10 minutes is usually too little to get anything meaningful done. 25 is too much to avoid distractions.

5. Create a false sense of urgency

A wise man called Parkinson once found that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Due to working from home and having no serious obligations, I know this better than anyone else. Sometimes I catch myself at 8pm after more than 10h of work, only to realise my results for that day are quite far from exceptional.
But there’s a flip side to the coin – if work fills up all available time, having less time means that you’ll do it faster, if only there’s a good reason to do so. My experience with working from touristy places has proven this correct. If I’m not travelling, meeting a friend in the evening is a perfect motivation as well. (However, I still need to get better in catching up with my friends. If you haven’t heard from me in ages, it’s not you, it’s me!).
When I’m working on something just for myself (like this blog post), I usually make up a deadline, even if it’s all fake. I push an early draft to WordPress editor and schedule the publish date on the next morning. If I don’t get it fixed on time, it will be published as it is and automatically posted to my Facebook. I had to reschedule a post once or twice, but that’s a great way to actually finish what I’ve started.

6. Keep track of your time

I’m not organised enough to do this manually, but luckily there’s a lot of apps that will do this for you. I use RescueTime on my laptop, and Moment on the phone. Both apps have all the features I need included in the free versions.
The day I installed RescueTime was a revelation to me. I only started tracking time in the afternoon, but still I was so shocked to see the report telling I’d spend more time on internal company blogs and Slack than doing the actual work. I’m proud to say this hasn’t happened again since I have this app installed.

7. Meditate

I can’t emphasise enough how much meditation has helped me with everything I do. It’s like discovering a secret superpower I never knew I had. Whenever I find myself stuck, upset, or complaining about the hard task in front of me, meditation helps me observe my thoughts and feelings from a certain distance. 15 minutes is often enough to break the thought pattern that felt overwhelming at first, and have all that feelings diminish, or disappear completely.

***

Remote work requires a certain set of skills, like pushing myself into doing stuff when I don’t feel like it. I had no idea how difficult it would be for me at first. The skills I learned along the way are now invaluable for my personal projects as well. With audacious ideas, little experience, and lots of self-doubt, the only way to finish what I started is to trick myself into it.

I’m out of office… And not coming back!

Working remotely was something I’ve dreamed of for a long time. It got me most fascinated when I used to live in Korea. Having to sit in the office without anything to do, I would read books about design and dream of packing my stuff and going somewhere far away, where meaning is the king.

When my dream finally came true, it felt freaking overwhelming at first. Like all the walls, floor and ceiling around me suddenly disappeared, and I was in a free fall. Some days, I would forget to eat lunch because I was so stressed about the stuff I have to do. Some days, I thought they’ll all figure out I’m too emotionally unstable to ever be in charge of my schedule.

But month after month after month I slowly caught the vibe and started taking advantage of the amazing lifestyle my job made possible. My first attempt at working while travelling was way too ambitious, but at least I had a great time and learned a lot.

The things I learned then were not wasted. Travelling together with my boyfriend, we’ve worked from Canada, US, Mexico, Portugal, Italy, States again and France during the last few months. Usually we’d take a few days off for hiking or sightseeing and stay for another week or two trying to live like a local. We love travelling and working like this, and we love coming back home once we’re tired.

Of course, its not just puppies and sunshine. It’s easy to fall in love with the idea of working and travelling, especially when you see pictures like this:

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Library of Hotel de Ville in Paris. It’s very old, absolutely beautiful, and feels like a sauna.

As beautiful, inspiring and Instagram-worthy this may look, it’s doesn’t tell the whole story. Inside it was extremely hot, they had terrible WiFi, a very complex registration process to even get in, so by the time I got to my full working speed they started closing when I was right in the middle of complex troubleshooting over live chat. I’ve literally continued the chat on my way out, carrying my laptop over to the elevator, security booth, and finally finished it 15 minutes later in the parking lot.

Working from everywhere is a beautiful concept, but without planing for that “everywhere” the stress would eat me. Where am I going? Will I be able to charge my laptop there? Is the wifi good enough? If not, can my mobile data handle live chat / audio / video calls? Is it comfortable to sit there for several hours? Is it possible to buy a drink or food there?

I never had to think about those things when working in an office job, but I can’t really say I’d have outstanding results back then. At home I’m often distracted, and then work overtime to catch up. Working remotely from cafes, libraries, parks or museums is the best way for me to stay truly productive. Nothing motivates me to get my stuff done as much as the library closing in 10 minutes, or the laptop battery running out.

And that’s probably the best thing about remote work. It doesn’t matter how long you sit in the office, it only matters if stuff gets done in the end. You don’t need to spend endless hours on meetings, try to impress certain people, or play office politics games, your results will speak for themselves. The trust and freedom in a fully remote job can be quite overwhelming at times, but I don’t feel like ever coming back to the office again. Neither do any of my friends who’ve tried it.

If it sounds like you’d thrive in a remote job, come work with us, we’re always hiring. You don’t need technical background to apply. This is not a sponsored post, and we’re not getting any referral bonus for any folks we’d recommend. I just truly believe this is an awesome company to work for 🙂

Perfect is the enemy of done

My boyfriend and I rent a cubicle in the coworking office nearby. To feel more at home, he’s hung a few things on the cubicle wall – including a picture I made on a painting class last year. It was my first painting on canvas ever, and while it might look pleasant from a certain distance, a closer glance reveals all kinds of rookie mistakes, including some very unfortunate trees.
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This could have been a really nice landscape painting…

It’s not easy to concentrate on my work with this painting hanging always there in front of my eyes. Perhaps I can take it back home and fix it? Sometimes I feel quite ashamed to have it hung in a prominent place in the office, visible to people I don’t know.
Yet Artur says he truly likes this picture, despite all of its flaws. If I am to take it down, he says, I’d better bring another one I feel more comfortable with.
I’m still yet to start painting that another one. A blank canvas or sheet of paper are extremely scary. Almost as scary as a canvas that’s filled in not well enough.
The same fear paralyses me when it comes to blogging. I’d love to write about the big, scary, important stuff and never seem to find the right words for it that don’t sound trivial. Then I come across a perfect version of the blog post I’ve tried to write for months, and immediately give up. (You should totally read that post by the way. This is precisely the thing I would write if I was skilled and experienced enough).
A drive for perfection can sometimes be an advantage, especially at work. It pushes me to dig really deep into certain topics, far beyond what most people would do. This lets me understand the big picture and root cause of every problem, and find a solution that’s good both for short and long term.
On the other hand, the time I take to find that one perfect solution would be sufficient to find two good enough ones. I don’t know what is balance between quality and quantity. I take too long to solve each problem, and then work overtime to avoid being a burden to my colleagues. After all, they have to deal with all the customers I didn’t have time to reach to.
It’s easier to spend an hour researching a topic, than to risk sending a solution that’s simply not right. It’s easier to write or paint nothing, than to write or paint stuff I might not be so proud of. It’s easier to spend the entire life reading about the awesome stuff people do, than to try something new and suck at it.
I find it extremely hard to feel comfortable around things I did imperfectly, and it’s a creativity killer. You can’t start anything new without making a few mistakes along the way. If everything you do has to be perfect, you will never get anything meaningful done. Most probably, the fear of making mistakes will let you only do stuff that’s easy, boring and repetitive.
I love how Leo Babauta of ZenHabits put this into words:
Uncertainty, and the fear and discomfort that arises from uncertainty, will always be there, unless you’re doing something you absolutely know how to do (like watching TV, checking Facebook or playing games).
I guess I should keep the painting on our cubicle wall for now. Maybe one day it will make me feel proud of how much I’ve learned. Especially to feel comfortable with my own imperfections.