Calming down

About 3 years ago, the stress was slowly killing me.

So back then I was working on my own business, using some of the money I earned as a software consultant, and running a company as the CEO/director. The consultancy job required me to travel an obscene distance taking an absurd amount of time to the tune of 4 to 4.5 hours every single day.

I slept an average of 4.5 hours a night. 6 if I’m lucky (such as weekends). My last thought before sleep was typically the injustice inflicted on me by my Troublesome Business Partner (TBP). My first thought upon waking up was that of TBP. My blood boiled continually throughout the day whenever the thought of TBP flits past my brain.

My health was a wreck. I could see my muscles wasted away. My breath was usually ragged and shallow. My back hurt and my shoulders ached.

Sometimes just standing still and doing nothing was the best thing I could do for myself. Because moving or even the thought of moving was too mentally painful.

I was continually worried about money. My company wasn’t making profits and I had to make payroll using my own personal money (because my business partners seemed to think it was unheard of for them to continue investing their money and time beyond the initial company setup).

The wakeup call

So one night I was walking home after work. It was near midnight when I alighted the train. The night was cool and I wanted to save money by not taking the bus.

I was enjoying the slight breeze and the solitude of the quiet night when I felt something. More precisely it was what I didn’t feel.

Because for a few moments I felt the absence of my heart beating.

I stood shivering on the walk path beside the road. Tears welled up. I was just so tired. I took long deep breaths as I watched the occasional car pass by. Then I continued my journey home.

You might think I imagined that. I thought so too. Until my heart “gave out” on a couple of occasions after the initial one. It was then that I finally came to terms that I had to do something drastic to turn my life around.

Because whatever I was doing was clearly not working.

The frantic search for relaxation

Prior to my heart incident, I was already trying my darndest to relax. I’m not stupid you know. So I followed the typical advice.

Such as long walks, preferably in nature. I took long walks in the nearby park. But the presence of humans agitated me more than the relaxation benefits. Yes people stress me out, like way more than was normal.

I wasn’t unfriendly nor anti-social. But after dealing with TBP, I became much more cynical and distrustful of people.

I did deep breathing, forcing my breaths into long drawn out streams of air flow. It sort of helped. But I was so wired up that the moment I stopped consciously breathing, my breathing adjusted to simulate a chihuahua panting. It was like two giant hands squeezing my chest and back together, holding with enough space that I could just barely breathe.

I also tried visualisation and meditation. Years ago I would have found it easy to maintain a light meditative state. That stressed out Vincent? Oh he was bombarded with a constant flow of anger, sadness, money worries, future worries, frustration, moments of small joy. I had a nervous tick in my left eyelid.

“What about pets?” Have I mention my cat died? A small part of me died too. I’ll leave it there…

“Well what about exercise?” I also did that. The thing was, you need to be able to recover from that exercise to reap the benefits. I was so stressed out that some pushups or jumping jacks took me days, maybe even a couple of weeks for me to recover. I was so worn out.

“Uh massage?” I couldn’t afford it.

“Talk to friends?” They’re not the business kind of people. And even if it’s just to talk it out, they’re guys. It’s not a manly thing to talk about such woes. So I just hang out with my friends but I kept my troubles to myself.

I was at my wit’s end. But what I’ve told you were what I actively did for relaxing. Mentally with meditation. Physically with exercise. Emotionally and socially with friends.

Those helped, but not significantly enough to turn things around for me. I needed something more drastic. Something that is done to me. Something that is passive for me once I start the initial process.

Next time I’ll tell you about my research into health and fitness and the ridiculous amount of health supplements I tried.

Academic self-publishing

As of this writing, I’ve worked in the academic industry for slightly over 3 months. More on this later.

Claire Morgan sent me this article on academic self-publishing. There are good points and bad points regarding self-publishing, which are exaggerated particularly so for the academic industry. I should know, since I’m making a web application for internal use in a university.

As part of my work, I learnt a lot about how the Ph.D. degree students go through their academic years, and what are the processes they go through. Yeah my web application is going to be used by staff and future doctors (albeit Ph.D.’s). Go me.

One of the more important parts of being a Ph.D. student is publications. It’s not necessary to publish any papers but they help increase your credibility. Perhaps in helping with raising the impressions of examiners who attend your thesis defence. Every little bit helps, I guess.

But you can’t just publish your work anywhere. The publisher has to be of repute and your work must be peer reviewed.

This means self-publishing is looked down upon even more by the academic industry.

But wait!

There are 2 points I found interesting in Claire’s article.

The 1st point is that you don’t have to publish your entire work. Maybe a non-vital piece of your research but is still informative and useful. “Non-vital” is of course relative to your entire research work as a whole.

The 2nd point is that you can publish mistakes or research results that didn’t go anywhere. These don’t help you and your final research publication, but they might help some other poor fellow from wasting resources going down that route.

So what’s happening lately for me?

As I said, I’m working in a university now. Well, technically they outsourced the work to me so I’m still considered self-employed. We’ll see…

I’m stationed in a research lab. I’m surrounded by Ph.D. students. My manager is a Ph.D. student. Or at least he’s the project officer who’s my liaison between the IT support department and me. But psshht, semantics.

As part of my work, I’m using ASP.NET MVC (model-view-controller) and jQuery. Both of which I’m not familiar with at the start of my contract. Fun times… I was more of a back-end kind of guy.

Speaking of back-end, my spreadsheet library is doing well. Go check out SpreadsheetLight if you haven’t, and it’s also on NuGet (which I just learnt about, even though I’ve been using Visual Studio for like donkey years. Like I said, I’m more of a back-end guy. How do you pronounce “NuGet”? Like “nugget”?).

So yeah, if you haven’t, go read that article. Tell me what you think.

In The Mirror (cover)

This is one of my favourite piano pieces by Yanni.

I’m not a pianist. I’ve never taken piano lessons. I’m like grade -1 or something. This took me over a dozen tries…

Credits and permission granted from:

Music by Yanni
23rd Street publishing Inc/Yanni Music Publishing (ASCAP)
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved

Passion problems

It was a fluke. I just fell into the spreadsheet business.

My main products currently, both in writing and in code, revolve around spreadsheets. Specifically around Excel workbooks or spreadsheets or files or whatever you call them.

I like programming and writing code. I’m great at it. I just didn’t specifically choose making spreadsheet libraries.

There’s a say out there about following your passion and “then the money will follow”. The problem is that you might just wait for that passion of yours to appear.

People pay for skill. They pay for convenience, pain relief, time saving, effort saving, money saving, revenue generation. They pay for what’s important to them. They don’t pay for your passion.

When it all started, I was working in the billing support department. Lots of financial numbers flying around. Lots of spreadsheets needed.

So I was forced to figure out a way to create Excel files with a minimum of fuss. I started with just XML files which Excel accepted.

Then more complexity was needed. Slowly I honed my skills at deciphering what users want, what Excel does behind the scenes and how to create Excel files.

By making my spreadsheet library as easy to use as using Excel, I am now an expert at using Excel.

A user unchecks a checkbox. I do the same thing and see what changes in the spreadsheet.

I may not be one of those Excel gurus who write 500 page Excel user guides, but I’m close enough. My spreadsheet library may not have all the features of commercial libraries that cost thousands of dollars, but it bloody well does the job in the most accessible manner possible.

This is skill honed over hours of study and practice and experimentation.

The funny thing is, I kinda have a passion for it developed over time. Oh I still hate Excel sometimes for being weird or incomprehensible in behaviour, but it’s mostly in jest. Ok I have an unseemly hatred for how Excel calculates column widths…

Develop a skill worth paying for. You may have a passion for playing video games but only a few people manage to be paid doing so. (if you’re interested, check out the gameplay videos on YouTube. That’s one way of being paid. Advertising or even sponsorship)

What are your marketable skills? How can you become so good that people have to pay attention to you, and thus pay you to help them?

Software is everywhere

Coming soon to toasters and refrigerators. YouTube hates me, or WMV files, because the rendered video has visual static…

And celebrate whatever holiday is meaningful to you. Happy holidays!

The sparrow is complete

It is a time of change. Some people give up and wait for changes to happen to them. Some people take action and make changes happen. Don’t be the former.

Previously, I summarised the recent developments in the online business world. Despite the opportunities available, it’s still easier to just sit back and do what you’ve always done.

There’s a quote from Twyla Tharp, a dance choreographer about creative blocks.

Do something. Anything.

The point is to get something done, even if it doesn’t specifically solve the problem you have right then. That gives you a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of progress, and you can channel that into doing more actions and eventually you’ll get to fixing your creative block.

Some people wait for the stars to align before doing anything. Some people wait for all the traffic lights to turn green before doing anything.

Sure your financial situation isn’t ideal. Sure your mother-in-law keeps breathing down you neck. Sure your work hours aren’t quite what you want. Sure you might like to have more space in your home.

But if you wait for everything to be perfect, you’ll never get to making that baby. Do you want to make babies or not?

There’s a Chinese saying that goes something like “The sparrow may be small, but it has all 5 major organs.” I don’t know what those internal organs are, probably heart, lungs, brain, kidney, liver?

The point is that the sparrow is complete, small as it is. It functions. It can fly, it can eat, and it can continue to make small baby sparrows.

In the business context, people almost always want to know more before starting. But the only real way to find out if you need to know something, is to start and then find out that you need it. Until you’ve done a task yourself and find it distasteful, you don’t really need to outsource it. Until you’ve answered customer questions, you don’t know how your customer service officers should behave.

Make a sparrow first. You can tweak it into an eagle later on.

Recent waves in online business world

By “recent”, I mean maybe up to the last couple of years or so. Let me start a little earlier than that.

When blogging became hip, there were programs (read: paid products) that teach you how to blog, how to write effectively, how to get your blog to be read.

And on the last note, website traffic became important. So there were programs (read: paid products) that teach you how to get traffic to your website. More importantly, how to get targeted traffic, because casual passers-by were next to useless for business purposes. Just look at all the traffic from Digg and StumbleUpon and Reddit and other social media sites. People come, look at your post, then leaves. That’s pretty much useless.

So creating an email list became imperative. You want to capture people’s email addresses so you can talk to them. If they sign up, then they want to hear from you. This is what Seth Godin would call permission marketing. But beware! There were some WordPress plugins that set annoying pop-ups that has a sign up box for people to put their email addresses. This pop-up happens either on finishing reading a post, or worse, on leaving a page. That would be “annoyance marketing”.

Then came teaching programs (read: pai… ok, you get the idea), that teach you how to teach a topic. The main one is Teaching Sells. The idea is that people will want to pay to learn something useful (and probably turn it into something profitable).

And on that note, videos were becoming popular, what with the increased bandwidth that most people have. And that some people like to see a person talking to them, instead of reading text or hearing audio files. So there was this product called Video Boss (I think). It teaches you (see previous paragraph) how to shoot, edit and upload a video. There were all sorts of information in that product, going so far as the minute details such as making your video visually interesting and lighting setups and so on.

Then there was the app craze, popularised by the iPhone. “Create apps. Become millionaire.” says some paid products (or to that effect anyway). If you’re a developer (which you probably are if you’re reading this blog), then be aware of what you’re creating. Create and sell apps if that’s your thing and that it’s working for you, not because someone says it’s the in thing.

Then there was the Kindle revolution, changing how people read. You can now self-publish on Amazon and push your ebooks out to millions of Kindles in the world. And make a bit of money from every ebook you sell.

The app thing and the Kindle thing have two things in common. They both relieve you of payment processing, and they both let you leverage an existing platform. Apple’s App Store for iPhone/iPad, Windows Store for Windows apps, Google Marketplace for Android devices, BlackBerry App World for Blackberry devices. And Kindle for well, Kindle devices.

Somewhere in those times, there was a need to know how to launch your product. I’m not talking about hype (or just hype anyway). I’m talking how to get sales from your product launch, how to get maximum impact. There’s this product called Product Launch Formula (by Jeff Walker) that teaches you how to do this.

I subscribe to many of these people’s email lists, so I get emails whenever whatever. Some are useful, some are interesting, some I just delete because it’s an obvious sales email (after you receive as many emails of such nature as I do, you can tell from the subject line or within a couple of sentences in).

There’s a point to all this. And I’ll tell you in the next post.

A research/questionnaire project

Hey you! Yeah, you. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, thanks! If you’re new, welcome!

In any case, I’m doing a research/questionnaire project, and I’d like your help. You just have to answer these questions:

  • What are your biggest frustrations/problems right now?
  • What do you want to learn about right now?
  • What ebooks do you read (or would like to read) on the Amazon Kindle (or other ebook reading devices)?

Your answers don’t have to be specifically related to software development. Send your answers via email or use my contact form if you’re into that kinda thing. I’m not accepting comments because I don’t want everyone to see your answers. I’ll be compiling a summary and sending it to you if you help me answer, so commenting here won’t be useful.

My email address is
vincent (at) polymathprogrammer [dot] com

Lesson learnt on the Internet: Repetition. Send your answers to me via email or use my contact form. I’ll compile a summary and send it to you.

Much appreciation and gratitude to you. Have I mentioned I’ll be compiling a summary of other people’s answers and sending it to you? Thrice I’ve said it, and thus let it be done.