When I’m overwhelmed, and I’m frequently overwhelmed, I grab ahold of a single thread, like what I did today, and follow it backwards, hand over hand, from decision to decision, to see how far back I can take it. Doing this makes me feel connected to where I came from, and helps me figure out where that thread might lead me next.
Today I built a chicken coop. There are 16 chicks in the garage, all cheeps and poops, growing bigger every day. I built a chicken coop because soon they will be too big for their brooder and they’ll need a house to live in.
There are 16 chicks in a brooder in the garage because last year we bought eight, and they grew up to be happy chickens that provide us with breakfast every morning and amusement every day. They eat the bugs in the garden and their poop makes great fertilizer after it’s composted a while. The fertilizer feeds the vegetable garden, which feeds us.
We got the eight chicks last year because we moved to rural Oregon and we suddenly could. I’d wanted chickens ever since I watched them scratch and peck their way through a friend’s yard. It’s calming, Zen-like, watching chickens do their thing.
We moved to rural Oregon because, when we were looking for houses in Portland, my wife and I both found we had a craving for acreage. After decades of living in dense cities, Heather and I had an intense longing for more space, fewer neighbors, and a lot less computer time.
We were moving to Portland because Heather had one of those awesome internet jobs she could do from anywhere, and my job as the CEO of a startup in San Francisco had just ended suddenly and without warning. Just like the startup before that and the startup before that.
I worked in startups because, when the web began, startups were all there were. There was no internet industry. There was just us fresh-out-of-college kids with useless BAs and an endless green field that started with “www.”
I was in San Francisco because there were no jobs in Santa Cruz after I graduated. When I was in college, you could always spot my dorm room because it was the one with all the plants. I used to pocket beans from the salad bar in the dining room, plant them, put them in my one solitary window, and grow the vines.
I don’t know why I did that. I just did.
Nostalgia is an addictive poison, like alcohol or nicotine. It starts out making you feel warm and fuzzy, but it feeds on you. Eventually it replaces the reality of the past with a sanitized version and blinds you to the promises of a brilliant future.
I don’t believe in romanticizing the past because the past my family comes from is horrible. War and persecution, followed by immigration and poverty. Struggles that make today’s millennials’ problems look laughable.
In spite of that past, I’m an optimist to my core. Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. I believe that because I have to. Because, if I didn’t, the wind would go out of my sails entirely.
But that doesn’t mean examining the past is useless. On the contrary, it’s our duty to remember where we came from. And examining it helps you realize how you got to where you are today.
The thing about hindsight is that it makes everything look connected. Because it is. One decision leads to the next, even though, at the time, they each feel discrete.
That’s how my first job at a startup in San Francisco led to the chicken coop today. How that dorm room bean plant led to the vegetables I’m farming. How my grandparent’s struggle connects to the opportunities my extended family and I share.
I spent 20 years building digital things. I built a website for telling true stories, a website for posting anonymous complaints, a website for photos of cute pets.
Some of those digital things crossed out of the ether and into the physical world. My wife and I started an online community of photographers that published printed magazines. The storytelling website, Fray, spawned a series of live events across the globe. The digital projects that jumped into the real world were always the ones that meant the most to me, but somehow it took me a while to catch on, probably because that’s not where the money was.
The money was in client work, and I did a lot of it. I started by writing html, converting designer’s work into something a web browser could understand. When the designs were bad, I couldn’t do my job, so I became a designer.
As a designer, I converted other people’s business ideas into something a person could understand. But when the business ideas were bad, I couldn’t do my job, so I became a consultant.
As a consultant, I advised companies on how to design solutions to their problems. But when they were focused on the wrong problems, I couldn’t solve them, so I started my own companies as an entrepreneur.
As an entrepreneur and a CEO, I was in a whole other world. A world of venture capital, of valuations, of endless steaming piles of bullshit. After a few years, I looked up to realize that everything I’d loved about the web, the connections real people could form across the wires, was gone from my life.
One thing led to the next. Hand over hand, I followed the thread. And it took me to a place I no longer wanted to be. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, there was no more thread. I had to make a change.
Heather and I decided to leave San Francisco on October 1, 2014. By October 10, I’d given all my plants to friends, we’d thrown out or given away half of our belongings, put the other half in storage, and were driving north in a car with two suitcases, two dogs, and a few plants I couldn’t part with.
I tell people that changing your life is easy. All you have to do is be willing to blow everything up. There was no goodbye party. No Dear John letter to the city I’d loved so much for so long. We just quietly left.
I feel bad about how I did it. I have friends there I never said goodbye to. Relationships that I just bailed on. My only explanation is that I was scared. Scared that if I lingered, I’d lose my nerve. Fall back into the “this startup will be different” trap. Scared that if I put all my love and energy into one more startup that fell apart spectacularly like all the others, I wouldn’t be able to survive it.
We now live on a couple acres in a rural part of Oregon that’s close enough to Portland to drive in and see friends. Our house is a former barn that still has bits of the original rough wood visible on the ceilings. The heartbeat count here on the farm has gone up quickly. It currently stands at two humans, three dogs, five goats, and 23 chickens.
Instead of building digital things, I’m building physical ones. A chicken coop, a goat shed, a greenhouse. I’ve been delighted to realize that the design skills that powered my career have translated well into three dimensions. HTML and CSS have become lumber and wood screws. BBEdit has become a miter saw. In a browser, you have to worry about versions and platforms. Outside, you have to worry about weather and gravity. But in the end it’s just designing around different variables. Problem solving is problem solving. Design is design.
Designing for plants and animals turns out to be pretty similar to designing for online communities. You can build a beautiful nesting box, but the chickens will still lay eggs in the hay pile. Sometimes the chickens peck at each other and we have to “community manage” them. Abby, our Rhode Island Red, likes to follow us around, squawking in angry tones. We call her our “Internet Commenter.”
The goats, all Dwarf Nigerians, are the perfect metaphor for an online community. They test all the fences to see where the weak points are. They can go from adorable playthings to forces of pure destruction in a heartbeat. They will literally eat the shirt off your back. And just when you’re about to lose your temper, they surprise you by being completely adorable.
Gardening has always been the go-to metaphor for online communities, so much so that it’s a cliché, but it really is the right one. Because in both cases, control is an illusion. Sure, you can prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and provide the nutrients, but the outcome is always subject to the whims of the universe. Sometimes you do everything right and the plants don’t thrive. Sometimes they explode and take over and the rate of growth becomes a problem. In the end, all you can do is nurture the seedlings and hope for the best.
The thing that people miss about gardening is the same thing people miss about online community. It’s never about one plant or one person. A garden is an ecosystem, each piece is an integral part of a greater whole, from the beautiful flowers to the grossest bugs, and the system exerts far more influence than any one thing.
I was at my Master Gardener class when the subject of pest control came up. We were talking about deer, a notorious pest in gardens because they can hop fences and decimate a crop in an evening. He said there’s no sure fire way to deter them. They’re just a part of nature, and it’s our jobs to create gardens where they’ll do the least damage. Maybe it’s tall fences. Maybe it’s planting certain plants they don’t like around the perimeter. Maybe it’s just standing outside with a broom.
And I thought of all the communities I’ve designed and participated in, and all the pests they encountered. How easily the deer stand in for the trolls and haters that see a beautiful garden as a buffet and toilet. How the fences so easily can represent the carefully constructed barriers to entry we design. The legion of community managers, all armed with brooms, trying to protect the fragile community inside, and cleaning up the mess when the pests inevitably get in.
I wonder how much better we could make online spaces if we took more cues from farmers. Because any farmer can tell you, the deer will never decide to stop being deer. It’s your job to protect your garden. Or, at least, make it inhospitable enough that the pests move on to the next one.
When I blew up my San Francisco startup life, I thought I was entering a whole new world. And, indeed, it is different. The shit I deal with is now, literally, shit. At least I can grow things with it now.
But the truth is, the thread that connects the web to the garden is there. It took a weird path from Santa Cruz to Portland, from digital to soil, but it’s there. And for the first time in a long time, I can see it spooling out into the future, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.