5 books to read if you’re losing faith in humanity

Even if you’re the most optimistic person in the world, following world news can recently feel quite overwhelming. It seems that technical progress has far outpaced our mental growth, and the four-year-olds in us are not yet ready for the inventions of modern civilization.

If you slowly get to believe that humanity is screwed, or caught yourself looking for a safe hideaway on a remote pacific island, here are a few books that might help.

Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature

betterangelsThis massive volume was put together by a psychology professor at Harvard. He makes a very brave and counter-intuitive argument that we’re much more peaceful and better off than at any time in human history – and backs it up with an incredible amount of data.

With painstaking attention to details Pinker analyzes the violent habits of our ancestors, the emotions driving us towards and away from violence, and the slow processes that made the Earth a more peaceful place throughout the course of human history.

Even though the tone of the book is strongly optimistic, it’s far from all kinds of New Agey mumbo-jumbo. What brought us to this peaceful point is not a cosmic fate, but complex social processes that can be still reversed if we let them so. Still, seeing where we’re coming from and how much progress we’ve made so far is a refreshing and much needed revelation that puts our current challenges in perspective. Perhaps we’re not that screwed after all.

Good quotes:

It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and long-suffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled a historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief.

Our species was born into the dilemma because our ultimate interests are distinct, because our vulnerable bodies make us sitting ducks for exploitation, and because the enticements to being the exploiter rather than the exploited will sentence all sides to punishing conflict. Unilateral pacifism is a losing strategy, and joint peace is out of everyone’s reach. These maddening contingencies are inherent in the mathematical structure of the payoffs, and in that sense they are in the nature of reality. It is no wonder that the ancient Greeks blamed their wars on the caprice of the gods, or that the Hebrews and Christians appealed to a moralistic deity who might jigger the payoffs in the next world and thereby change the perceived incentive structure in this one.

Chris Hadfield – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

astronautsguideAs soon as you leave Earth’s atmosphere, you enter a place that’s absolutely hostile to life. Surviving in such extreme conditions requires a certain set of skills acquired in the long and stressful process of astronaut training.

Even though the problems they usually deal with in outer space are quite otherworldly, the tools and techniques of the astronauts can help face our challenges back on Earth. In his book Hadfield explains how you can never be too prepared for any event, how to contribute positively to your team goals even if the situation seems quite hopeless, how to savor little joys of life, and how to stay calm and avoid panic when everything around is trying to kill you.

A solid piece of advice, served on a beautiful plate of the vast, indifferent Cosmos.

Good quotes:

My dad could be a stern taskmaster and on principle didn’t believe children should complain, but he also disapproved of whining because he understood that it is contagious and destructive. Comparing notes on how unfair of difficult or ridiculous something is does promote bonding – and sometimes that’s why griping continues, because it’s reinforcing an us-against-the-world feeling. Very quickly, though, the warmth of unity morphs to the sourness of resentment, which makes hardships seem even more intolerable and doesn’t help get the job done. Whining is the antithesis of expeditionary behaviour, which is all about rallying the troops around a common goal.

The fact is that even the least eventful day in space is the stuff of dreams. In some ways, of course, it’s the improbability of being there at all that makes the experience so transcendent. But fundamentally, life off Earth is in two important respects not at all unworldly: You can choose to focus on the surprises and pleasures, or the frustrations. And you choose to appreciate the smallest scraps of experience, the everyday moment, or to value only the grandest, most stirring ones. Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy.

Ryan Holiday – Obstacle is the Way

obstacleSome people seem to be invincible, coming stronger and wiser from all the challenges life has thrown in their way. Some other ones break down as soon as the first possible thing goes wrong. The difference between them, Ryan Holiday says after ancient stoics, lies not in any external circumstances, but rather their own attitude towards life.

To illustrate the point, the book describes the stories of a few dozen people who objectively had every possible reason to give up. Instead of wondering why they had to face such unfair difficulties, all of them treated the conditions they found themselves in as a unique opportunity. Poverty, severe illness, depression, economic crisis, physical disabilities, discrimination, these all can be turned into an advantage, should you choose to look at them this way.

The tone of the book may lean a bit towards pathos, but its contents makes it certainly worth reading.

Good quotes:

You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them
listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.

Where one person sees a crisis, another one can see opportunity. Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness – these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realise: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings. Or, like Rockefeller, not to.

Dalai Lama – The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

artofhappinessPoor village kid at the age of two, leader of a nation at the age of fifteen, refugee running for his life at the age of twenty four. Despite all of the terrible things the Chinese government has done to him and his people, Dalai Lama has never ceased to believe in the underlying goodness in every human being.

In an interview conducted by Howard Cutler, an American psychiatrist, Dalai Lama’s spiritual wisdom gets intertwined with a modern scientific point of view. Combined together, they form a powerful analysis on how social isolation leads to unhappiness in most of the Western world, how most of the violence and hatred comes from adopting an us-versus-them mentality, how a positive attitude can be practiced and nourished, and how radical empathy and focus on our interconnectedness could help us make the world a better place.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist or religious at all for this book to bring you some comfort and hope.

Good quotes:

The difference in one’s vision of human nature can mean the difference between living in a world filled with fellow human beings who are perceived as hostile, violence, and dangerous, or as essentially kind, helpful, and gentle. A deep awareness of the essential goodness of human beings can give us courage and hope. On the individual level as well, such a vision of our basic nature can help promote a greater sense of well-being and connectedness with others. Even if the objective facts, historical and scientific, did not conclusively support either of the two views, from a practical point of view, it is still in our best interest to embrace a more positive view of the human nature. After all, we humans have a tendency to make real what we choose to believe, somewhat in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Optimist does not mean that you are blind to the actual reality of the situation. It means that you always maintain a positive spirit so that you remain motivated to seek a solution to any given problem. And it means that you recognise that any given situation has many different aspects – optimism involves looking at the situation not only from the standpoint of the problem itself, not only recognising the negative aspects, but also seeking out some positive aspect, some potential benefit, actively looking at the same situation in terms of the potential positive outcomes.

Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World

demon-haunted_worldFor the whole human history we have been struggling to make sense out of our existence and the mysterious forces driving our fate. Our minds are hardly trustworthy and the search for understanding can easily lead us into bullshit or superstition. Luckily, with the combined effort of many such great minds over the course of the time we have the most powerful tool in our hands – the scientific method. It is this force of untapped imagination combined with rigorous skepticism that flies us to the Moon and beyond.

We live in a society fully dependent on science and technology, where nearly no one has even a basic understanding of science and technology. If we don’t put our superstitions behind and start making informed, fact-based decisions, the future for our grandchildren looks very bleak. In fact, there might be no future at all.

Over twenty years after this book has been written, it doesn’t seem that we’ve made much progress on this. Yet as long as there’s a natural-born scientist in every single child, there’s still hope we will figure our way. Sagan has some excellent ideas where to start.

Good quotes:

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

The business of scepticism is to be dangerous. Scepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought, they will probably not restrict their scepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channellees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?

Getting back to the basics

Last year brought many changes for me, and most of them were simply amazing. I have the freedom I’ve always dreamed of – to do something I care about, whenever I want, wherever I want, and the way I want it. After so many years of working the Korean way, this freedom feels truly overwhelming. It’s like trying your best to focus and get down to work in a room where there’s no walls, no floor and no ceiling, and you’re in a constant state of a free fall.

It turns out freedom takes a while to get accustomed to it, and brings a whole lot of inconvenient questions. If there’s nothing you must do, and nothing you can’t do, how come you hardly get out of bed before 10? Why don’t you exercise if you have the most flexible schedule of all people on Earth? How come you hardly actually leave the house, unless you’re leaving the country?

For the last two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of this year. I came up with an awesome mini-bucketlist with lots of cool, Instagram-worthy things to check off. But the more I thought about this, the more I realized I need to focus on just a few key things, and find my new normal in a life that’s not normal at all. Here are my top priorities for 2017.

Get back to workout, no matter what

There was a time in my life when I was in the gym at least 4 times a week. It was also a time when I led a perfectly regular and distraction-free life. I didn’t even have to think about cooking or cleaning!
The luxury didn’t last long. Once I decided to apply for Automattic, I had two jobs at one point and completely gave up on anything but working, eating and sleeping. Since then, every time I plant a tiny seed for any habit, I go for a trip, break my routine, and forget everything I’ve learned. It’s high time to admit that never is the perfect time to start working out, and to look for a routine that can be followed everywhere, even in a trailer park.
By the end of January I want to exercise at least 3 times a week. The hard part will be to keep it consistently throughout the year, no matter where I am at the time.

Learn to cook well

It’s not like I can’t cook at all, I’m just very far from efficient.
I love cooking for my brothers who are grateful for everything that has food in it, but everyone else on the planet could probably find at least a few things for me to improve. In the kitchen I am so slow and clumsy that it usually becomes too painful to watch, and someone volunteers to save me from this suffering (and also from learning and gaining experience). My biggest pain point is food shopping and planning – I go for the least healthy option when I am hungry, and don’t feel like buying any food when I’m not.
It doesn’t help that I have a boyfriend who cooks much better than me. Or that I got terribly spoiled by a year of living out of company canteen, without even having to use a pot or frying pan once.
I have no ambitions to become a Master Chef, but knowing at least 7 healthy signature meals that I can make efficiently and plan in advance would be a giant leap from where I am now.

Write more on my blog

Once in two weeks would be a good start. Once a week would be super-amazing.
There are so many things I care about in life, and I’m scared to death to write about these things. When I’m emotionally involved in a topic, I tend to drift towards pathos and self-righteousness – and this is driving me nuts.
I used to complain I have nothing more to write about once I returned from Korea. This was such a good lie I actually got to believe it myself. In fact, I’d love to write about Cosmos, human nature, education, challenges facing humanity, love, death, the meaning of it all, mindfulness, leaving an impact, happiness and stuff, but it’s incredibly hard to speak of these things as they are. I always feel I either sound like a stoned cosmic fairy, or a know-it-all judgmental asshole.
Not many things in life make me as vulnerable as writing about stuff I deeply care about. This is precisely why I should keep going. Getting my thoughts out on the Internet gives me clarity that’s hard to achieve otherwise.

Read (and understand!) Feynmann’s Lectures on Physics

As much as I’m in love with the Cosmos, I have only basic understanding of how it works. It’s quite embarrassing, but I hardly know any math beyond high school level (and I graduated as a Bachelor of Engineering!). Well, it’s so embarrassing I’ve never actually admitted this until now.
I tried reading the Lectures on Physics a few years ago, but gave up somewhere around chapter 10. I really enjoyed the book until differential equations in three dimensions appeared out of nowhere and hit me hard in the face.
If I am to write about Cosmos, I must stop pretending I have an idea what I’m talking about, and actually start to have that idea. If that means re-learning the whole university math course from scratch, so it shall be, I guess.

***

Items on this list are not as interesting or sexy as traveling around Iceland and Thailand, passing an open-water diver’s license, or even learning Spanish. But that’s precisely what I need now, to keep doing the basic stuff no matter how chaotic my life would get. Once I learn to ride the waves, there’s nothing that can stop me on my way to adventure.

2016 was the best year ever

I’m 100% serious here. I can clearly see many alarming global and local trends, but the worst trend of all is the attention economy that rewards extremism and apocalyptic beliefs. I know some regions of the world are deeply torn by terror and war, but when you put that in proper perspective we’re still living in the most peaceful times in human history. Despite what your Facebook feed tells you, the world is not ending yet, and those with different political or religious views are not monsters or brainwashed puppets. The sooner we realize the stone-age software in our brains can’t properly handle clickbait headlines, information overload, and Internet bursts of outrage, the sooner we’ll be able to see the world and other people as they actually are – an incredible place with perfectly fine human beings.
Another popular reason to hate 2016 is an unfair number of celebrity deaths. It’s true that we’ve lost many talented musicians these days, and I’m sure Planet Earth will never be the same without the Starman and princess Leia. However, I guess it’s high time to admit we’re not kids anymore, and seeing our childhood heroes go away is a natural part of growing up. They will only keep getting older and older and eventually dying one by one, so I don’t expect any upcoming year to be much better in this regard. Actually, the only certain thing in life is that we’re all going to die some day, so we might as well accept the fact and make the most of whatever time we still have available.
While I’m still far from perfect in making good use of my time, 2016 was certainly the year when I’ve made the most progress so far. I’m more mature than ever, quite certain what I want in life, and learning every day how to get there. I don’t have any master plan, and it’s not like I’ve figured it all. Sometimes I’d still rather stay in bed for the whole day, or get really upset and cry for no reason. But now that 2016 is almost over, I’m looking back and seeing this year has brought me lots of things I’ve always dreamed of – and more.
It’s quite hard for me to believe, but in the last year I have:
– visited 5 new countries and two continents for the first time;
– bungee jumped from a crazy tall bridge in South Africa:
– gave up smoking;
started drawing and painting, which brings me more joy than I would have ever guessed;
– bought a bike and made it my primary means of transportation;
– spent over a month traveling and working at the same time;
– stargazed in Canadian wilderness surrounded by perfect darkness;
– rode a huge zipline between two mountains;
– rented an RV in Canada and hopped from one beautiful spot to another
– read 30 great books;
– seen red rivers, glaciers, waterfalls, giraffes, lions, rhinos and other wonders of nature;
– swam with sea turtles;
– climbed a pyramid;
– scuba dived in an underwater museum;
– petted an elephant;
– hugged a dozen giant trees;
– visited Mexico on the All Saints Day;
– watched a Cirque du Soleil show;
Looking at all of above, I can’t feel for the current year anything else but gratitude. The bar is raised quite high to make 2017 even better than that. Even though so much stuff in life is totally beyond my control, there’s still a lot I can do to get the most out of the new year, whatever it brings.
If your family and friends are alive and healthy, and yet you believe 2016 was the worst year ever, perhaps you’ve been tricked by the attention economy culture, where everything is BREAKING NEWS, SHOCKING and APPALLING. You may believe you’re fighting for the right cause, but political discussions on the Internets are not going to change the world or anyone’s minds. Actually, they get the society even more polarized and full of hate.
I’ve made my choice to give up on political news and rants completely, and instead to focus on my own attitude, habits and actions. These are the things I can control. These are the things that let me make the world a tiny little bit better on my own micro scale. Not to mention that traveling the world, doing meaningful work, helping people, or painting has much bigger effect on my day-to-day happiness than anything that happens out there.
2017 will be what you make of it. Don’t let random bullshit ruin it for you.

Girls.js – our own little school of magic

There is a certain kind of joy that comes from creating something out of nothing. For the whole human history, this was what pushed painters, writers, and composers forward to paint, write, and compose. To me, there’s even more joy and pride in the process when it feels like bringing something to life. It doesn’t matter if I know the algorithms inside-out, and fully understand the mechanism behind all decisions being made. The sole fact that something seems autonomous or having a sense of humor will always feel like magic and bring me lots of delight.
This is probably the least practical argument for why anyone should code, but it is the one that speaks to me the most. For the most people, there’s usually a certain job to be done, and they need coding to have this job solved, automated, or to figure if it’s feasible at all. Be it for magic or for practical applications, everyone can learn some coding basics and solve simple problems on their own in much less time than they think. All they need is a text editor, a web browser and Internet connection.
Some folks – mostly those who’ve never tried programming – believe it requires some secret black sorcery skills, incomprehensible for mortal humans. This could have been true a generation ago, but now that programming languages have become much more intuitive, it’s more similar to cooking than it’s to rocket science. Personally, I find coding a whole lot easier than cooking. If something goes wrong, I can always undo the last action or even restart the whole thing from scratch, which is kinda difficult when you’re dealing with a burnt pie.
Last week me and my friends organized a free JavaScript class for girls who had zero experience with it. We got much more applications than we could handle this time, and the feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. In a few hours our students, most of whom had never tried programming before, took  a simple picture gallery and brought it to life with code . We’ve barely touched some very basic JavaScript features, but none of us ever dreamed of teaching the whole language in a day. Instead, the girls got to see how solving certain problems with code is well in the scope of their abilities.
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Our gallery on autoplay mode – the real thing can do a bit more than this GIF.

As a mentor teaching the class I got to learn even more. Even though we’ve crafted the course with a total beginner in mind, not every concept or metaphor were as clear to beginners as we thought it would be. Browser compatibility issues came out in few unexpected places. We’ve overestimated the difficulty of our course (some participants finished it well ahead of time). Launching it early with a small group helped us collect a ton of valuable feedback on how we can improve the future editions.
Observing our students – their motives, learning styles, and challenges – was very educational for me as well. Some of them signed up for the course cause they were considering a future career change. Some others came for the freedom to get their websites working in any way they would like, without having to ask others for help. There were some looking to understand their developers better, so that they can improve communication in their projects. Every one of them had her own unique learning style, her own unique pain points, and all the right skills needed to solve the task.
I’ve always believed that everyone can learn how to code, and everyone should learn how to code, even if they never plan to code for a living. Nobody doubts the benefits of learning how to write without becoming a professional writer, or learning a foreign language without becoming a professional interpreter. Similarly, algorithmic thinking is a tool that greatly expands our understanding of the world, and gives us the power to shape it with our hands. I’m proud we created Girls.js out of nothing and can’t wait to see where this adventure will take us. From our first course we learned there’s a huge need for projects like this.
Cover photo: Anna Juszkiewicz. Gallery tutorial inspired by Mark Lee’s simple slideshow.

Survival Kit (Not Just) For Customer Support

For some of my friends it’s hard to believe it, but I do love working in customer support. There’s a certain kind of joy that comes from helping people, that can hardly be felt if you’re just interacting with machines all day. However, for every 50 customers who are all happy and grateful, there’s always one or two who sound upset, angry, demanding, frustrated, or all of above.
This one angry customer usually had the most impact on my mood, no matter how many friendly and pleasant interactions I’ve had before that day. When I was quite stressed on my own due to external circumstances, one APPALLED person shouting in ALL CAPS could easily leave me helpless. It’s changed a lot in the last few weeks, all due to one book recommended by a colleague – The Customer Service Survival Kit by Richard S. Callagher.
The guidelines covered there is collected from training materials for policemen, hostage negotiators, crisis counselors, or marriage therapists, backed up by psychological research and wrapped up together with a nice dose of humor. Some of the tips sound very counterintuitive at first, but they all work amazingly well since the first time I dared to apply them. I no longer freak out when dealing with angry customers, cause now I have some perfect guidelines to follow. Here is a couple of them:

Lean into the criticism and don’t defend yourself

 Imagine I arrive at your store shouting:
– I paid $500 for this piece of crap that doesn’t work at all, you freaking cheaters better give me money back!
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that? If you’re anything like me and most people, I bet it’s not remotely similar to: “Oh no, you must have had a really terrible experience with us! Please tell me more about this”.
I know what you’re thinking – if you give up and agree with me even though I’m terribly wrong, I will treat this as a proof that it’s all your fault, and become even more angry and demanding. Actually, the opposite is true. If you start defending yourself, the whole conversation will revolve around who’s right and who’s wrong without moving anywhere close to a solution. On the other hand, if you manage to make me feel heard and understood, this will diffuse the tension, and eventually get me listening to you. And the easiest way to make people feel heard is to…

Validate their feelings

You don’t have to agree with me to acknowledge the fact that I have certain feelings about the situation, and the full right to feel them. If I’m having a bad day I might be clearly overreacting to what has happened, but blowing things out of proportion happens to all of us sometimes.
Even if it’s all my fault and the smartphone doesn’t work because I broke it myself, or I simply didn’t read the instructions and have been trying to turn it on with the volume button for the whole time, in the world as I see it I paid a ton of money for something that doesn’t even start, and this made me feel angry. Most of the people would feel angry if they bought something that didn’t work. Validating my feelings doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything I am saying, or pay with your own money for a replacement.

Ask the right questions and show genuine interest

This is a double win. Not only asking detailed questions will help you understand what exactly happened and how we can move on from there, it will also make me slowly switch into a rational mode, and calm down enough to work towards a solution. Good questions will focus on facts, step by step scenarios of what happened and when, or optionally my feelings about them. Any question starting with a Why has a potential to make me need to explain myself and switch back into the defensive mode.

Don’t criticize, educate, or prove that they are wrong

Yes, we all know we should be doing regular backups, use complicated passwords, read the whole license agreement before clicking accept, and visit the dentist at least twice a year for a periodic checkup. No, reminding me of these after something awful has happened doesn’t make the situation any better, it makes me feel even worse. Even if your intentions are crystal-clear and you’d like to protect me from even more pain in the future, you can still rephrase all of these in a way that makes me feel less of an idiot. A good way could be to tell me that you were in my shoes yourself, and that you managed to get out from there. Now when was the last time you backed up all your stuff?

Make it all about them and focus on what you can do

I don’t care that you didn’t arrive to an appointed meeting and didn’t answer my calls because your colleague was supposed to let you know and he didn’t. I don’t care that updating my contact information on the telephone is not allowed by your company policy. I couldn’t care less that you’re closing in 15 minutes and cleaned the slicing machine already, so you’re not going to sell me any sliced cheese tonight. All I care about is my own agenda – and that’s natural and understandable.
Even if you have no good news to deliver, you can still rephrase your message and focus on what’s in it for me. “We can only help you with the default features of our products, as custom code modifications are outside the scope of our support policy.” is a very accurate answer, and also one that ignores my agenda completely. You can reframe the same message as “Even though our support staff are not developers, our customization partners at XYZ will be happy to help you with this. Here is their contact info: “ that will give me some further steps I can follow.

Show them they are okay, even if they messed up

Overreacting is a natural part of being a human. We all have our bad days and occasionally turn into four-year-olds. Once we’ve solved the problem together and everyone’s agenda is met, I’ll probably feel completely embarrassed that I came into the store shouting at such nice people as you. (Apologize to every phone marketer I’ve ever been nasty to. It’s not you, it’s me). Just saying I’m welcome to come back anytime will make a huge difference and help build a lasting relationship.

Apply in real life too

The best part of all of this is, the tips covered in this book are not only helpful in customer support, but in pretty much every area of human interactions. The author says that what he usually heard after his training session was “I can’t wait to try this at home!”. Out of all the books I’ve read this year, this one has had the biggest impact on my day-to-day live – I’m more resistant to stress, much more efficient at my work, and spend much less time procrastinating and freaking out about delivering bad news. If you work primarily with people, this book is a must. If you don’t, it will still have a lot to offer for you.

Lessons learned while working on the road

It’s been exactly one year since I came back to Poland from my crazy Korean adventure. When people asked me then what I planned to do next, I would say “get a remote job, get my stuff in a backpack, and get the hell out of here and round the Cosmos”. That was some abstract wishful thinking, cause at that time I had no resume, zero experience with working remotely, nearly zero experience with job seeking, and didn’t believe I have any useful skills I could turn into money. Hey, I didn’t even have a backpack back then!
Without any prior experience with working remotely and away from home, I had a very romantic and unrealistic vision of how that would look like. Now I had a chance to put this vision into practice, staying for a whole month in Canada and US, and trying to work while traveling around. While it was an absolutely amazing experience, and I can’t wait to do it again, not everything worked as smoothly as I expected. Here’s a few lessons I learned on the trip:

You can’t have it all

When you’re in a far far away land, you’ll naturally want to see as much as possible. There’s always so many places to go to, so many things to see, so many trails to hike. For me it was the first time in Canada (or any of the Americas, for that matter), so I tried to take as much of out it as I could. Yet there’s only 24 hours a day, so if you want to travel around, work a bit, and stay sane, you’ll have to give up on some things. We hiked much less than I expected, only saw a tiny little part of the Olympic park, skipped many amazing places and rushed through some other ones. Well, at least we have a reason to come back.
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Hugging trees goodbye in Olympic National Park

In America everything is far. Like, really far.

Before the trip we’ve marked a few spots on a map within what looked like a reasonable distance. We haven’t visited half of these, and yet we did around 3.500km in two weeks. That’s more than enough to go around my whole country (and it’s one the bigger side among the countries in Europe). Sometimes there would be signs on the road saying “Check your fuel. Next gas station in 120km”. Sometimes there would be no signs of civilization until that next gas station. I never thought of buying a car in my life, but wouldn’t survive a day without one there.
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Our RV on one of the remote highways.

Towns are quite disappointing. But you don’t go there for the towns.

When speaking of downtown, what I normally imagine is this (that’s my home town by the way):
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The Old Town Hall in Lublin

There’s many prettier cities than this in Poland alone, and if you take the whole Europe, you can spend your whole life traveling from one beautiful town to another without ever having enough. In the places we’ve been, nearly every town looks like a huge parking lot with a couple of stores and houses around. I understand how everyone needs a car to cover all these crazy distances, but I really missed some public space where people could go and hang out together. Out of the three exceptions (Banff, Jasper, and Whistler), two were in the middle of national parks and one is a famous ski resort, so I’m not sure if these are representative at all.
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Banff – one of the prettiest towns on our way

On the other hand, why would you ever bother with towns if there’s such amazing nature everywhere around? I’m in love with all the mountains, lakes, forests, rivers, and waterfalls. The night sky we watched from a cliff in Banff National Park is one of the best things I’ve seen my life. I could easily spend another few months there without even going to a city – if only I had a guaranteed Internet connection there. Speaking of which…

Check Internet options before you leave

I’m terribly spoiled by Polish mobile carriers. I usually top my prepaid SIM card up with $15 every month, and get unlimited data for this. It’s not the fastest connection in the world, but enough to work comfortably from pretty much anywhere. In Canada we bought a SIM card that costed few times as much, had only 2GB of transfer, and didn’t let us share the connection with any other device. To get one that would allow tethering, we would have to be Canadian citizens. So much of working anywhere.

WiFi is rare. WiFi is precious.

Well, what else would you expect of a national park? Even though I told my team I’ll be semi-AFK for two weeks and slowly adopt to the work-and-travel lifestyle, I worked even less than I thought I would be. Some campgrounds declared they have WiFi on site, but the most I could do there was checking my email. We had no choice but to hop from one chain restaurant or coffee shop to another, and hope we don’t get kicked out from company proxy every 5 minutes this time. Bonus surprise: a crowded McDonalds with kids running around might not possibly be the most optimal office environment.
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If only we could work like this every day…

You can get terribly stressed over bad Internet connection. And it will mess with your work.

Dealing with customers requires a lot of emotional energy, to keep empathizing with them without getting upset when they are upset, or angry when they are angry. Not being sure when and how long will be the next time to get something done depleted these energy levels much more than I thought. When you’re in a hurry, have so much distance to cover that day, get disconnected every few minutes, and suddenly there’s someone typing ALL CAPS and DEMANDING you solve their problem NOW, this can drive you to an edge, even if you normally solve cases like this one with grace.

Pack light, buy local.

I thought I’m a relatively low-maintenance kind of a girl that can survive with much less stuff than most of my friends. Still, the idea of getting everything I might need in a month, including computers, cables, shoes, towels, etc, into a backpack, sounded kinda surreal. In the end we packed only the very basics, and bought stuff as we needed along the way. During that month we’ve carried all of this by RV, car, taxi, ferries, buses, and occasionally on foot, so I’m glad we didn’t bring any more. In the end we’ve packed all extra stuff in a plastic container and shipped as a checked baggage on our flight. Now we’re left with some random cheap pillows and blankets from Walmart, and also a plastic container, but that’s another story…
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Understanding American culture: the ultimate Walmart experience.

Improvise.

No campground around? Just drive off the highway into the first obscure road you can find (and get woken up to the sound of a train passing by right next to your head). Don’t have a drone to shoot a good video? Tie the GoPro with a rope and swing it off a bridge. Need to pack all the extra stuff you’ve collected on your way? Just wrap it up in a blanket, tie it up with the same rope, and you have a nice pack to carry around. There’s a crazy disco party coming and you didn’t bring your make up bag? Just buy as many kinds of glitter as you can, and do your whole make up with that (it turned out amazing!). Your creativity might surprise you if you have no other choice but to be creative.
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Improvised selfie stick. 100% organic!

Embrace the chaos.

When we left for Canada I wasn’t even 2 months into my new job, and it’s a chaos on its own. The company culture is so different from anything I knew, especially compared with the army-style management in Korea, that it took me a good while to adapt. And once I started feeling a little confident in my job, we left for the trip, breaking all the routines and lifehacks I’ve set up by then. I really admire my team lead – she probably knew that my productivity would plunge dramatically, but wouldn’t give a smallest sign of disapproval. When you think about it, never is the perfect time to throw your life upside down and do something new. You can only do it anyway and accept the fact that nothing is under control.
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Blowing soap bubbles in Seattle. Why? Because why not 🙂

There’s another trip coming in a few days, so I’m thinking of ways how I can take what I learned from these lessons and apply them this time. We’re giving up on pace – now we’ll stay mostly in the same place the whole week, and do sightseeing on weekends. We’re giving up on all these beautiful things that are just half a day driving away, cause that’s not sustainable in the long run. We’re doing research on mobile plans available to avoid getting surprised this time. My plan is to be at least as productive on this trip as I was on the week before – we’ll see how it turns out.
In the meantime, here’s a short recap of our month in the beautiful Northwest:

Drive: What motivates us, and how not to kill it

Imagine a workplace without carrots and sticks. No hands-on control of what people do and how they do it, no extra rewards for great performance, no extra punishments for falling behind. Sounds pretty abstract, doesn’t it? If you’re like most people, you wouldn’t probably bet on this company’s success. Yet when there’s some innovative job to be done, letting people do what they want, when they want, and how they want is probably the most effective way.

In his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink argues that businesses and schools fail to catch up with the changing nature of work and the latest advances of science. If the task at hand requires creative and out-of-the box thinking, traditional management practices don’t get the best out of employees. In fact, they can do more harm than good.

The old school of management assumes that most people would avoid work if possible. If all they’re expected to do are some boring, repetitive and mundane tasks, this is actually quite true. In such an environment, the manager’s job is to motivate her employees to do what’s needed, usually with financial rewards. If there’s no prize for exceptional performance, why would anyone bother to do more?

However, there are vast areas of human activity that can’t be explained in terms of external, if-this-then-that kind of motivation. The world’s largest source of information, Wikipedia, was built almost entirely by volunteers. Hundreds of thousands developers around the world contribute their skills and leisure time to open source projects and share the results of their work completely for free. Thousands other volunteers analyse space photography and data to help scientists classify galaxies or remote planets. Sometimes there’s no reward needed to keep people going. Sometimes the activity itself is the biggest reward.

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Classification process on https://galaxyzoo.org Everyone can participate.

Obviously, not every task is a reward of itself. According to Pink, there are three basic criteria for the intrinsic motivation to work. People doing the job should be given autonomy over what, how, when and with whom they are doing it, so that they can feel in control. There should be opportunity for growth and pursuing mastery, or they would get bored real fast doing the same thing over and over again. Last but not least, they should see some purpose and value in the work they are doing. Increasing stakeholders’ quarterly profits is hardly enough.

Intrinsic motivation is quite fragile and tricky. Scientific experiments proved it can be easily killed with a system of rewards and punishments. After all, if you need a reward to do something fun, perhaps it wasn’t that fun in the first place? What’s more, even the most joyous activity can be turned into a pesky chore if there’s a strict set of rules regulating every detail of how it should be done. You can get people to comply, but shouldn’t rather expect anything more than compliance.

What’s even more tricky is the effect external rewards have on the ability to solve complex problems. When offered a reward for performance, people would do repetitive tasks much faster, as long as there’s a clear set of instructions to follow. However, when the same prize was offered for a puzzle that required out-of-the-box thinking, it actually took more time to solve than when no reward was present. The very promise of some extra money made people narrow their vision and focus on the money so much, that their creativity suffered in result.

This doesn’t mean people are only effective if they go unpaid – there’s nothing nearly as demotivating as not being able to make a living out of your work. But as long as the base salary is fair market value and enough to satisfy one’s needs, offering more money for a creative project will not necessarily help get it done better. In the age when most mundane tasks are getting automated or delegated offshore, the old school of management is slowly becoming obsolete. Creativity thrives best when it is hardly managed at all.

If this all sounds like an extremely Utopian piece of science-fiction, so did it to me. Yet there are companies that already implement this science-fiction in real world. Actually, I only heard of this book from the CEO of Automattic, and after one month with the company I can already see what an amazing culture will grow if you just let the people manage themselves. No, I wasn’t paid extra to write this blog post. I wouldn’t probably want to write it if I was 😉