Menu

Everything and Nothing

November 22nd, 2019

I’ve been thinking about the question for a solid month now. What about building websites has you interested this year? The question pervaded my solitary thoughts and played in the background during my conversations. I’d love to just tell you the answer I’ve come to, but the more interesting part was my thought journey in getting there.

I jumped at the opportunity to write up my thoughts on this because in general, I am delighted to dive into a conversation about anything that gets me excited. Writing, though, is heavy with irony in my life. There are so many exciting things that I’d love to write about, but I never get asked to write about them. That is of course, until I do, and my mind goes blank.

Even when I properly sat down, cleared my desk, and got out a fresh notebook out to brainstorm and reflect… I still couldn’t really come up with an answer. It worried me.

I thought that maybe my answer would be too meta. Or maybe I couldn’t really notice the thing I’m interested in the most because it’s already seamlessly integrated into my workflow? Nonetheless, I started by collecting thoughts by way of the insta-question-answer technique, where you rapid-fire ask yourself a bunch of questions and say the first thing that comes to mind. This is a great technique when you want to get a quick, reasonably honest answer about something. If you can go fast enough, your brain’s first answer is fairly genuine and generally, the one you have, consciously or subconsciously, spent time thinking about. You also have to place an injunction on your rational brain’s inherent desire to veto your real answers (what if someone sees!) and replace them with more polished ones.

Let’s Play: This Year’s Favorites

What’s your favorite song from this year?
Old Town Road. I want more black cowboys wearing yellow to exist. I didn’t realize how much I wanted that to exist until I saw that performance.

What movie did you like the most?
Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Obviously, even though that little girl should have died like 20 times. I know I probably should have said Avengers End Game because that movie was everything but it’s Godzilla. King of the Monsters. So he has to win.

Favorite tech upgrade?
Automating my lights. I was a little behind the curve on this one but it’s been great.

Mobile App?
Kami 2. Super fun to play.

What about building websites has interested you this year?
Um…

My brain shut down. There was no answer, only silence.

I thought of the answers I should want to say. That the increased focus on accessibility is encouraging. That the new edition of Ember feels pretty nice once you get over not having the magic anymore. That design systems are done right, paired with a framework done right, is pure productivity bliss.

Truth is, I probably could have made any of those answers work, and no one would be the wiser. After all, they are satisfying answers. Deeply satisfying. Years of passion, patience, and persistence is yielding the fruits of our labor. But none of these answers set isInteresting to true for me. So I kept thinking. Surely the answer would come to me if I let it hang around in my sub-conscious a little more.

A week came and went, but there was still nothing.

I started to become a little anxious. What did it mean? Was I burnt out? Was I just not interested in building websites anymore? Have I lost the spark? Maybe I was just not talented enough to write an article like this? Did I say “yes” to the wrong thing? As tempting as it was to crawl into bed under my covers and continue this downward spiral into the endless black hole “what does it all mean”, I decided to make a strong cup of tea and lean on the skills I have developed over the last 20 plus years of building for the web.

Problem Solving Skills

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

This quote is from a prominent Zen Buddhist and one that I reach for when I get stuck inside myself. I remind myself that I already know the answer, I just need to use the tools I have to bring it out and let it shine. I needed to trust the process that has worked time and time again for me: slow up, write everything down, and just ship it.

Part 1) Slow Up

I had become so engrossed in the every-day mundane I was missing the inspiration. It’s easy to get bogged down in lines of code, JIRA tickets, and quarterly goals, all the while explaining ad nauseum that developers should reach for semantic HTML first. I recognize the signs now and knew what I needed to do. I needed to slow down to get faster. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But it’s the same in software engineering: slow is fast. We have proven, time and time again, that when we rush solutions we incur technical debt that we are unlikely to ever repay.

So I took some time to catch my breath and feed my creativity.

I read the book. I watched an interview with the author. I learned from a video series about a standup comedian talking about their process in creating. I sat still and listened to some cello music.

Part 2) Write Everything Down

The next part of my process is to write things down. When creative inspiration is missing, I turn to functional discipline. I have learned that they are the yin and yang of my creative process as a whole. So, I started to make lists. I listed all of the things I have shipped so far this year. I listed all of the conferences where I gave talks and the conferences where I wanted to give talks but didn’t. I wrote down the things that gave me confidence this past year and the things that made me feel like an imposter. I looked at my goals from the start of the year and made a list of the things I’d done for each goal.

Then I started writing a little more, this time in paragraphs. I transcribed one of my talks and took notes on where I would do better next time. I write a review of one of my annual goals and thought a bit more deeply about what motivates and inspires me.

Part 3) Just Ship It

Then it came to me. I knew the answer.

It was nothing, but it was everything.

Nothing specifically about building websites has specifically interested me this year – but I’m still as interested as ever in building them. The answer to “what about building websites has interested you this year” is simply a resounding “Yes”.

Yes, because I still love thinking about design, components, and the perfect information architecture. Yes, because as much as I swear at my code, I keep coming back to it, keep finding new things to love about it, keep feeling energized when that idea just clicks and something great happens. Yes, because despite doing this for 22 years, I still want to get up and do it again tomorrow.

And that’s when I knew that I could just ship it.

The tech of today, the tech of tomorrow

We are at a specific time and place in tech. Those of us who are building for the web has become more aware of how the tech we create effects those around us. We are starting to accept our responsibility for the lines of code that we write, and see that we cannot merely pass the buck to our supervisors and bosses to make ethical decisions. We are demanding more of ourselves, demanding more from the code we write and the systems we use, demanding more from the giants of technology who seek to abdicate responsibility for how their tech is used.

At the same time, we are figuring out how to climb the proverbial mountain together, while recapturing the fun we had back in the days we called ourselves “webmasters”. We are learning to be kinder to ourselves and others. We are figuring out how to make creating for the web easier to learn and to do and we are breaking down the walls that kept far too many people out for too long.

I was watching my son while he was absorbed in lightsaber battles in virtual reality and thinking about how his childhood is so different than mine. The tech I had back then isn’t anything near the tech I have today, and the tech he has today won’t be the tech he has as an adult. What do I imagine that will look like? Even bigger than that, what do I want to help bring into existence?

The truth is, it’s all interesting to me. All of it. I can’t wait to see we do next and I’m so here for it.