Sunday, December 30, 2012

The $0 Startup

I haven't posted in a couple months because I've been busy tinkering with something. And no, it's not another crappy startup that can't raise any more money. (BTW, have you read that article? I think it's fabulous. Seriously, go read it. I'll wait.)

It started with a hackday courtesy of CoderFaire. The night before, I was thinking how great it would be to to build something I would actually use and somehow involve FoxyCart and Twilio in the process. I woke up at 5am that morning with an idea and couldn't get back to sleep.

The idea is pretty simple. We all have things we want to change in our lives, and most agree creating new habits (or breaking old ones) is the best way to do it. There are plenty of reminder apps out there, but we're too busy (or too lazy) to set up spreadsheets and track our progress as a form of accountability.

So how about a system that sends you a text message, asks you a simple question you define, and then graphs your replies?

That's the basic idea behind Track and Remind Me:

It's not pretty. Heck, I don't even have a logo yet. But here's the important part:

It cost me nothing to launch this site.

I literally spent $0 getting this hobby site off the ground (and yes, it's a hobby right now, not a startup). Here are the tools I used:
  • FoxyCart (free during development)
  • Twilio (also free during development)
  • PHP (free)
  • MySQL (free)
  • AppFog (first 2 gigs of application memory are free)
  • GoDaddy domain ($10, but I didn't really need this, as AppFog provides a nice, small domain for testing)
  • phpMyAdmin (free)
  • DNS (went with a free solution at
  • Google Apps (free, used for setting up email accounts, though they may be charging $5 a user now)
  • Bitbucket (a free provider of git)
  • Eclipse (a free integrated development environment)
  • Highcharts (I haven't made any money yet, so I still consider this testing a personal project. I'll buy a license and/or use something else when appropriate.)
Of course, nothing is truly "free" when you include the man hours (and I've put in a lot for this). Still, this is a fully functional "idea" that didn't require a penny of funding. As you may know, I've spent the last 5 and half years of my life bootstrapping FoxyCart. There is a place for funding (though I have no personal experience with it), but I also believe many of the "web" ideas floating out there right now should stay as hobbies. There's little point in raising a bunch of money, hiring a bunch of people, and spending 18 months or so to see if anyone cares.

You have nights and weekends just like everyone else. Try putting in some time first to see if your idea sucks. If you're worried someone can copy you and "beat you to the market," then you're probably not solving a very original (or difficult) problem in the first place.

Here's my advice for someone with a web-based idea:
  • Be the guy who can actually work on it (i.e. a developer). Don't expect someone to work on your idea for free unless that someone is you.
  • Solve a real problem you personally need solved (I need a reminder to run at least twice a week).
  • Think long term. If the problem you're solving won't be around in the future, is it really worth solving? If you're willing to go slow and steady, making many small improvements over time, you're on the right track.
  • Don't call it a "startup." You have a hobby. Until you see profit, you still have a hobby.
While we're on the topic, what do you think of my idea?

If you like it, hit, set up some questions, and give me some feedback. For a limited time, I've got it adding a 2013 New Year's resolutions coupon to make the whole system free. Check it out! I still have some bugs to fix, but that's all part of the process.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Autobiography Worth Reading: Benjamin Franklin

2016 Edit: This post can now be found on Steemit here.

I was recently intrigued by an interview with Elon Musk, one of the most interesting entrepreneurs of our time (more on that some other day). When asked what books inspired him, he mentioned Ben Franklin's Autobiography.

My ears perked up immediately. I had just been researching Ben's Junto club but never really studied the man himself. Which is strange, considering he founded the very first university in America, one I was privileged to attend.

I loved this book!

I highlighted so many sections, it's kind of funny. I could relate to Mr. Franklin because of the faults he had (he basically ran away from Boston after steam rolling some people), but I was inspired by what he did to change himself. He was a man full of wisdom, inspiration, diligence, and virtue.

I'll add some of my favorite quotes below. Hopefully they will inspire you to give the book a read. If you're an entrepreneur, I highly recommend it.

On Communication and Persuasion

...retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men 
My wife often berates me about communicating my opinion as fact. I really suck at controlling the words I use. I forget how powerful they are. To completely remove words from one's vocabulary is inspiring. I say "good" when I mean "well" at least 10 times a day. Yes, I need to learn the art of thinking before I speak.
When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc.
Speaking of those who love to be contrary:
...these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.
The chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade.
If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.
Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot;

On Virtues and Self Improvement

This quote actually made me LOL:
It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.
What blew me away further was the systematic process he went through over a period of decades to achieve this goal. The dude made his own spreadsheets on paper! The virtues he pursued were:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. 

 It's safe to say Ben Franklin helped change the world. Those 13 virtues may explain why.

Throughout the book, he mentions many vices, but I found it interesting he specifically called out debt:
...which exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.
Dave Ramsey and Proverbs 22:7 would agree.

On Pride and Humility

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
Battling my pride (which goes hand-in-hand with my man-pleasing and insecurities) is a constant activity. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

On Reverence to God

And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used and gave them success.
"O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me."
That there is one God, who made all things. "That he governs the world by his providence. "That he ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving. "But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man. "That the soul is immortal. "And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice either here or hereafter."

On Entrepreneurship

I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.
He'd probably agree with Dave Ramsey who often says the only ship that doesn't sail is a partnership, though Ben does give me hope that it can be done when communicating expectations is made a priority.
Partnerships often finish in quarrels; but I was happy in this, that mine were all carried on and ended amicably, owing, I think, a good deal to the precaution of having very explicitly settled, in our articles, every thing to be done by or expected from each partner, so that there was nothing to dispute, which precaution I would therefore recommend to all who enter into partnerships; for, whatever esteem partners may have for, and confidence in each other at the time of the contract, little jealousies and disgusts may arise, with ideas of inequality in the care and burden of the business, etc., which are attended often with breach of friendship and of the connection, perhaps with lawsuits and other disagreeable consequences.
Oh, and he had an opinion on patents too:
That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.
I could probably go on and on... but you get the idea. It's a good book by an incredible man.

I'm amazed at how many areas of our daily life Ben Franklin influenced. Like him, I also want to make a difference in the world and be significant. Learning what worked for him seems like a good place to start.

What have you read recently that has inspired you?

What other autobiographies would you recommend?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My Friend, the Politician

If you're like me, you might agree politics is not the answer for much of anything. On any given day, the decisions I make impact myself and my family more than any politician or government program.

In fact, mostly I just want them to stay out of my way and let me run my business.

A few years ago, I got really frustrated with politics in general and urged people to take our country back from the corruption in Washington. I still believe neighbors helping neighbors through churches and non-profits will always be more effective than any bureaucratic government plan.

To be honest, at one point I probably lost hope in the political system as a valid means of bringing about positive change or making an actual difference in people's lives. I have friends that are political, and I've cheered them on at a distance, but, more recently in fact, I've become more aware of just how difficult a job it is to get elected or be a public servant.

My friend Ben Claybaker has helped me realize that. He's running for State Representative for district 53 here in Tennessee. My wife and I have known Ben and his wife Elizabeth for a long time. We actually knew Elizabeth back when we lived in California and she attended UCLA. Ben's the real deal. A small business owner who believes in limited government, cutting taxes, and improving education (which, by the way, makes an area more attractive for business owners, their employees and their families).

Ben won his party's nomination. He and his wife have worked hard. I mean, really hard. I know something about hard work having built my own business over the past 5 years, 4 of which while working a full-time job. He's been working a marathon of making phone calls, attending events, and knocking on doors.

Unlike all of the opponents he's faced in this election, he's lived here for 6 years. I hear the other dude owns a house somewhere else and is renting here just for this election.

Last week I helped knock on doors for Ben and let the swing voters know why I support him. I got to see first hand just how hard he's been working day after day for months. He's doing it because he has a passion to serve his community, and he believes it's part of his calling and responsibility. I'm inspired by my friend who is living his life on purpose.

He's given me hope for politics. He's helped me believe, at least on the local level, that one man with a passion can make a difference.

Today, my family had the privilege of attending one of Ben's events in Lenox Village which is just down the street from our house. The kids had a blast (bounce house, cookies, and gelato), but I also enjoyed meeting Governor Bill Haslam who was there to support Ben (that's him in the picture). Gov. Haslam told some funny stories but also reminded me how close of a race this is. He recommended we each get a list of 10 people in our minds and make sure they vote for Ben this election. I'm hoping this blog post will help us do that.

If you're in district 53, and you want to be proud of your representative, please vote for Ben and ask your friends and neighbors to do the same. Share this post with them or have them contact me if they want someone to vouch for his character.

Not all politicians are evil. I had to see one of my friends first hand working his tail off to realize that. If you're like me, fed up with politicians and politics (especially on the national and presidential levels), try getting to know your local representatives. If you can't find anyone with integrity in your local office, consider running yourself. It's a lot harder to complain about a problem when you're the one willing to fix it.

I hope this post encourages Ben and lets him know how proud his friends are of what he's doing. I hope on November 6th, more people will be introduced to him as our new representative and maybe, just maybe, find hope in the system again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Hypermedia Debate at FoxyCart

All I want are sharks with frickin laser beams on their heads!

Many of my geek friends know I've been working for most of this year on a new REST API for FoxyCart. It's been a long, sometimes painful process but I'm learning a TON. It's really challenged me to grow as a developer and that's a Really Good Thing (tm).

Just last night I put up a post over at opening up the discussion we're having concerning media types for our new API. If you're into that sort of thing or you've enjoyed my previous post about RESTful Resources Required Reading, come join the discussion. We'd love to have your input.

The Hypermedia Debate

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Other Side of the Booth

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending CoderFaire Nashville. I've been to a lot of great conferences, but this one was different for me on a few levels:
  1. My good friends Cal Evans and Jacques Woodcock organized the event which made me feel like an "insider." 
  2. I got to see my friends speak, and they were all really good! Tim Moses, Ben Ramsey, Jason Myers, Eli Tapolcsanyi (say that name 10 times fast!), Jim Siegienski ("Jimski"), Jon Shearer... loved them all. I missed Kevin Powell and other friends, but I heard they did great as well. 
  3. My business partner, Brett Florio, flew in from California so we got to enjoy the conference together.
  4. My company, FoxyCart, was a lab sponsor.
Let me start off by saying the conference was a huge success. The Nashville development community has been growing like crazy and desperately needed their own conference event. There's been a lot of back and forth on social media about BarCamp, PodCamp, and other conferences some argue have been "taken over" by marketing professionals. Regardless of that debate, there was no denying what CoderFaire was all about.

For a first year conference, I was amazed at the turnout, the quality, and the smoothness with which everything was done. The result was a testimony to Cal's many years of conference experience combined with Jacques, Kathy and the volunteer team's pursuit of excellence.

Well done!

But that's not really what this blog post is about. I wanted to highlight #4 above. I've been to a few conferences now (JavaOne, AdobeMax,, PHP Tek, BarCamp, PodCamp, etc), and I usually follow the unspoken rule when it comes to vendor tables: Get in, get your free swag, get out, and, no matter what, do not make eye contact!

No one likes to be poorly marketed to. It makes you feel like a roast pig on a spit.

For the first time ever, I was on the other side of the vendor booth. FoxyCart was a proud sponsor of CoderFaire. Look, we bought a banner and everything! We're a real company now! (after only 5 short years). The genius of the setup was we weren't allowed to "sell." We were lab partners, there to answer questions about our service and equip others to build awesome.

This is the way it should be done. Vendors should think of their conference presence as an opportunity to serve their community in person. To put a human face on the awesome support they already give, day in and day out.

I think we've all been trained by bad vendor booths. People hawking their products and services to anyone and everyone: bribing you with a t-shirt and shaming you for not signing up for the newsletter.

Cal and Jacques: Thank you.

Thank you for showing us all something different. It's hard being on the other side of the booth. It's hard to get past that unspoken rule and let coders know, "We're here to help. Really." But you made it possible.

We had some great conversations and hopefully sparked the beginnings of some new partnerships. The feedback I got at Tuesday night's NashCocktail and last night's CentreSource Interactive Mixer from CoderFaire attendees was incredible.

They loved that we, as a vendor, were there for them. We participated in the hackthon (more about that later... I'm going to turn that thing into a business). We attended sessions and asked questions. We, as developers, were part of the community, not a parasite feeding on it.

The next time you attend a conference, look for the vendors that genuinely want to serve you. Thank them for being there. Tell them you enjoy doing business with real people who care about their customers.

I know it will mean a lot to them because the feedback we've gotten has meant a lot to us.

(Note: All of these pictures were blatantly stolen from Cal and Jacques. They both know where I live, so they can come beat me up if they don't like me using them).

Did you attend CoderFaire? If so, what did you think?

Got an interesting conference story involving vendors? Please share it in the comments!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Does Your Business Care About Profit?

2016-08-27 Edit: A version of this post now lives on Steemit! Join up and give it a vote.

Q: Why do companies fail?
A: Because they don't have any money.

Q: Why not?
A: They spent it all. There was a bucket they pulled from to do their business, and that bucket is empty.

Q: How do you keep the bucket from going empty?
A: Profit

Profit is an ancient, seemingly forgotten equation that many Internet startups have never known. Centuries, even millennia, of business wisdom have followed this simple idea:

Profit = Revenue - Expenses

(Sure, you can get more complicated by calculating your break even point, analyzing fixed costs, variable costs, marginal revenue, equilibrium price, supply and demand, etc... but let's just keep things simple).

If you don't have profit, you might just have a hobby.

If you convince others to invest in your hobby or buy it completely, it may be a ponzi scheme.

I'm concerned for my industry. For some reason, it seems we didn't learn from the dot-com bubble. We somehow think if we get enough people "interested" it will make up for not delivering real value. The service provided to the customers should have real value. Someone should be willing to be pay for it (customers, preferably, but advertisers get in the game as well).

If "going public" or "selling the company" is your company's only strategy for making money, it might be worth asking, "Are we bringing real value to our customers?" If you're pouring your heart and soul into building something, make sure it's something that will last. Make it something people are willing to pay for. Work hard to keep it that way.

Don't pull money out of a bucket to run your business. Instead, do something awesome your customers will tell their friends about. Meet real needs in the marketplace and continue to evolve as the needs change.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls a dollar bill a "certificate of appreciation."

Your doors are kept open by the appreciation of your customers.

Do something worth appreciating.

It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. In fact, it will probably take years of trial and error.

Dave Ramsey talks often about losing it all. After becoming a young millionaire, he went completely broke. He then spent years meeting with and learning from millionaires, decamillionaires and a few billionaires about how to do things right. The recurring theme he saw over and over again can be explained in a children's book.

The tortoise always beats the hare.

Warren Buffet (quoting Fred Brooks from the Mythical Man Month) said it well: "You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant."

Spend the time to grow your business the right way. Meet needs, deliver value, and profit.

This post may rub some people the wrong way. It's just my opinion. I welcome yours in the comments below.

P.S. I can't tell you how thankful I am for our FoxyCart customers. They have given us their appreciation and referrals since 2007. Serving them is the reason our company exists. I'm glad we spent our time in the hobby stage because we focused on the needs first. We're now a sustainable business meeting real needs for thousands of people, and I feel like we're just getting started.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Curious About Curiosity

When shuttles tragically fail, Hubble can't take pictures, or missions don't go to plan, I hear friends talking about how we should redirect NASA funding to feed the hungry.

With the success of Curiosity's landing last night, now I hear calls to increase their funding.

I guess we Americans just want to celebrate success.

Don't forget, failures always line the path to great accomplishments.

As for my opinion, I don't think we would have been given such a big backyard if we weren't meant to explore it. I believe these moments will mark the timeline of humanity while many other things will be long forgotten.

What's your opinion?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Test Story for Those Who Don't Like Writing Tests

Without tests, eventually you'll fall down.
My first experience with unit tests sucked. It involved a Java ecommerce bohemoth with good "test coverage" along with more bugs than should be ethically allowed in a commercial product. The company admitted it was one of the worst versions they had ever released (and supposedly some people lost their jobs over it), but the net result was me thinking unit tests were useless. If the same team who wrote the crappy code also wrote the tests, how helpful could they be?

So I decided to just write production code and leave the tests to people with too much time on their hands and no customers to serve.

Yes, that was me being arrogant, ignorant, and stupid. The tests weren't the problem. They just didn't have tests to cover the issues we were finding.
With tests, you have a chance to stay standing.

Years went by, and I got along fairly well. But then I started building something complex. Really complex. A fully RESTful API. It quickly got out of hand. I needed the ability to refactor a major controller for the whole system and know with confidence a change in one place wasn't breaking something else.

Going with Silex and their Symphony WebTestCase pushed me over the edge. Their createClient method helped me quickly test my whole API from end to end. I had no excuses not to write tests. 803 tests and 2,289 assertions later, I'm completely sold on testing.

The story I'm about to tell would have helped the earlier version of me get on board faster and may help you or a colleague finally write those neglected tests.

During what had to be a "Gee, I wonder if this quick hack will work" coding session, I added an attributes table to our system for transactions, customers and subscriptions. I was lazy, so I made a dumb decision and created a name/value table with transaction_id, subscription_id and customer_id fields. Why would we ever need more attributes, right? ;-)

I usually make long-lasting database design decisions, but this was admittedly pretty lame.

So the time came to add more attributes to products, shipments, users, clients, and stores. I knew to do things "right" would involve a database schema change, and it could impact live stores if I screwed up. Most everything we do is versioned in FoxyCart, so what you get today is what you'll have tomorrow. The catch is, all of the versions we support use the same data model.

Testing to the rescue!

The updated table was going to use foreign_key_id and type fields to keep track of the various attributes. The existing versions expect attribute data to be organized in a very specific way. Here's how I went about making the changes without screwing anyone up:

Step 1: Write tests for how it works today.

Ideally you're all hard-core with test driven development, and you wrote your tests before you even started building anything. But if that's you, this isn't your story. You're the guy who is "too busy" to write tests and would rather write code that "meets real needs" in the marketplace.

Am I right?

So I wrote 27 tests with 35 assertions on everything the current class object handled. This included outputting to XML for our API, updating and saving objects, and the like. Keep in mind, this was a real time investment.

Step 2: Break it all.

Once I had everything working, I went ahead and made my database changes in development and refactored all the code. Now almost all of my wonderful new tests failed. Some methods had been renamed or completely removed, others were slightly re-purposed or adjusted. I made a copy of the test file and went to work on it.

Step 3: Mindless coding for speed and profit.

It wasn't exactly test driven development, but this approach made my job so easy. The tests literally told me which line to fix next. Going through and tweaking the code was almost mindless. I can't tell you how many times I said, "Oh, yeah. That doesn't work that way anymore. That's a quick fix."

Soon I had things green across the board again with my new tests against the new class with a new table structure. I was stoked.

Things clicked for me. I got a greater understanding for the power of proper test coverage. I could now confidently roll out a significant change (with a required data migration step) and know our users wouldn't be impacted because the inputs and outputs of the class were verified to be exactly the same as they were prior to the change.

So here's my challenge to you, like the me-of-old, who isn't writing test code:

Start today.

Start with the very next thing you have to code. At first it will be painful, and you'll think you're "wasting time." Trust me, you aren't. Ask anyone who's worked on a lot of real code for more than a few years, and they will most likely back me up on this. You may have gotten by this long because you haven't been faced with a real challenge or you haven't had to fully realize the extent of your current technical debt.

Once you get a taste of the confidence you can have in your system and future changes to it, you'll wonder (as I have) how you got by for so long without writing tests.

Do you write tests (unit, functional, PHPUnit, Selenium, etc)? Why or why not?

P. S.: I know the pictures in the post really have nothing to do with it, but I needed excuse to post them somewhere. :) I got a bunch of cool shots from surfing last week. Check 'em out.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What If You're Not a Writer?

My baby girl, Aria.
She's one of the reasons I need to stay focused on what I'm called to do.
First off, Jeff Goins' book, You Are a Writer, is a really great book. You should buy a copy and read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who's ever even thought about writing.

But what if you aren't a writer?

This post may offend my writer friends, but hopefully they'll hear me out (and offer some input).

I've been thinking about blogging lately. That's kind of what you do when you have one of these things. I've already talked about why I blog (to encourage others), but lately I've been thinking about how I blog.

I'm not one to do things half way. If I'm in, I'm all in. So where is this blog going? I'm a business owner and an entrepreneur, not an aspiring writer. I don't have a life long dream to write my own book. I don't take this blog as seriously as some suggest I should.

I haven't bothered to upgrade to Wordpress or buy a cool theme. I don't spend as much time as I should editing posts or creating new content. I don't comment on or read other blogs every single day. I'm not out building new relationships with great authors. I don't seek out people to follow on Twitter in the hope they will follow me back and grow my "audience." I'm not looking for opportunities to guest post or asking people to guest post here.

In short, I'm not trying to be one of the cool kids in the blogosphere.

All of those activities are things I know I should be doing as a "blogger" or a "writer." If I'm honest, I may have felt guilty now and again for not doing this work. A lot of my friends are on top of it. They have amazing blogs with loyal readers and tons of inspiring comments. It seems like almost every day I see tweets about the top ten ways to grow your blog, or the five things you can do today to improve your posts. Basically, I'm doing it wrong. And I know it.

One sure-fire way to be successful at nothing is to try and be successful at everything.

I've been told by a few that this blog could turn into something really good. Am I willing to do the work to make it good?

Don't be deceived. It takes work.

The answer, for now, is no. I'm not a writer. I am, however, striving to be a better communicator. This blog helps me tremendously. It helps me better understand myself and encourage others. I might be a writer in the future, but today I'm a business owner.

I don't have to be like everyone else. I still get value out of what it is I am doing. I'll keep writing because I want to encourage others with my story, and I want to hear their story in the comments and via email.

So how can this post encourage you?

I want to give you permission to write for your own reasons. Focus on the most important priorities for your purpose and remove the other distractions. Don't feel bogged down by all the things you should be doing as a blogger. Just get something done. Do the work, but do it for you. Stay focused on being successful at that which matters most for your life.

I hope you have a blog, and you share your thoughts with others. Your words are powerful and unique. You are the only one who can distribute them.

Are you a blogger who has priorities other than your blog and do you feel guilty about what you think you should be doing?

P.S. I'm super excited because my wife finally started blogging. Do me a favor and check out her blog at Simply Stokes. Leave her a comment to encourage her to keep going.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Your Art Should Be Selfish

No, that's not me, nor is it Costa Rica. It's actually Mavricks. © jdegenhardt 

The previous two times I went surfing were horrible. During one, I was just getting pitched over the falls and drilled left and right. The other ended with lightning and a thunderstorm throwing rain so hard it hurt my face.

But tonight...

Oh tonight...

I had one of the best surf sessions I've ever had. I surfed from 5pm to 6:30pm. By the time I got out of the water it was almost dark, and I was definitely the last guy out there. The sunset was amazing, and the waves were incredible.

I caught some overhead monsters and even though the lineup was full, I was catching waves all over the place. When I close my eyes, I can still see some of the rides I had. One barrel seemed to go on forever. Another huge take off turned into a screaming face with the lip right over my head. As I started paddling back out, one of the locals actually turned to face me and clapped with a smile. Another gave me huge smile and said, "Nice wave."

I was already beyond stoked before these kudos from the cool kids, but something about it struck me.

What was so different today than the previous two times out in the water?

Other than the thunderstorm hindering things a bit, I felt like I could do nothing right just a few days ago. One wipeout had me through the spin cycle. When I pushed off the bottom, my head ran straight into the fins of my board. Ouch.

One of the reasons I had such a bad session in contrast to tonight's had to do with who I was surfing for. After getting tossed by a couple waves, I think I started surfing for the approval of those in the water instead of my own enjoyment. I also started getting desperate. I convinced myself they were all thinking, "Who is this kook wasting our waves?"

I tried to take off on some waves even though I was already too far inside. I didn't want others in the water to think I was letting a good one go by. I had a scarcity mindset.

Now, I'm not what I'd consider an artistic person. I can't draw worth a damn. I blog a little bit. I've tinkered with guitar. I write code. If I were to think about "my art," I might consider including surfing. Granted, I'm not very good at it, but a wave is like an empty canvas either way.

To be better at my art, I needed to be selfish with it. It was for me, not for the locals in the water.

Your art is for you.

I'm not talking about when you turn your art into your business. I'm talking about when it's still just pure, uncommissioned, do-it-because-you-love-it art. It's an intimate expression of your inner self. It introduces you to parts of yourself you didn't know.

If you just want to create art, don't write for someone else. Don't create a song you think others will like. Don't approach a canvas thinking about what will sell.

Do what you love just for you.

And you know what? Your art may not be that good. That's OK. You don't have a scarcity mindset because there will always be another chord progression, another blank page, another empty canvas, another perfect wave. Art is what you have inside. Sometimes it just needs to come out as is.

Let others worry about if it's good. You never know, you might get a hand clap now and again.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Life on Purpose

Why were you born? Why do you exist? Does the world care that you are here?

These are some serious questions, and I believe they are worth asking and answering. Depending on your worldview, you may have very different opinions than mine. That's OK, as long as you don't turn off your brain and rely on stereotypes.

According to my worldview, there is a Creator. Just as a carpenter builds a chair, the created thing is given purpose by the will of the author.

In short: You matter.

No one in all of history will have your exact genetic, social, emotional, spiritual, or mental signatures. You are completely unique, and, as a created being, you have a completely unique purpose.

Do you know what your purpose is? Do you know how to find out?

I often find myself having conversations about living life on purpose. The more I think about it, the more I believe it's a pretty good approximation of my personal brand (if I have such a thing). I'm all about living life on purpose and being stoked every single day. The idea of being "stoked" isn't just a play on my last name. It's well known to surfers and others who live life with passion and exitement.

I like the urban dictionary's definition best:
"stoked" - adjective - to be "stoked" is to be completely and intensely enthusiastic, exhilarated, or excited about something.
I want people to be stoked on life. The only way I've found for life to make sense is when I'm living it according to the unique design created for me. I've blogged about purpose and significance before, but I want to give some back story to why I believe these things.

Story Time

I grew up in a Christian home with very loving parents. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but towards the end of high school I started tinkering with computers and building web pages. In college, I majored in computer science and was a pole vaulter on the track team.

I had so many injuries, it was ridiculous. I sprained an ankle I had previously broken, tore an ab muscle, and eventually broke a small bone in my back. After eight weeks in a space-age back brace that healed line-backers with ease, I was still hurting.

What happened next was, I believe, one of the most important moments in my life. I actually asked God, "If I'm not here to have a pole vaulting career, why am I here?" I only had one semester left, and I felt very clearly the answer was to start a Bible study.

I said OK.

Every college senior is asked, "What are you going to do when you graduate?" at least 3 times a day. My answer was always the same, "Move back to California, start my own company, and make a lot of money."

And then I read this verse in James 4:13-17:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Again I asked, "OK, you're the Author... what do YOU want me to do?" I was presented with an opportunity to raise support and go into full-time ministry. I remember what can only be described as a conversation with God that went something like this:
Papa: Sure, you can go start your own company but eventually I'll ask you for it. You'll have to sell it all and go into ministry. Or, you can go into ministry now (when you have nothing to lose) and later in life you can start your company. 
Me (thinking ministry always involves poverty): Huh. Well, it sure is simpler to give up what you don't even have then to give away everything once you get it. Easy decision.
I said OK.

From there I worked in ministry for 6 years, then for a "for profit" ministry for almost another 4. Slowly, almost without realizing it, "my company" started to take shape as a friend and I began to build FoxyCart on the side.

As I write this, I'm enjoying 10 weeks in Costa Rica (the photo above was last night's sunset view) with my family, running a business remotely, and enjoying every minute of it. What I thought would be decades later was less than 10 years. I haven't made a ton of money yet, but I believe that will come also as I'm prepared to steward it.

God knew the desires of my heart because He designed them. What has become my favorite life verse explains this well:
Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
Psalm 37:3-5
Want to know how to find your purpose? I believe it's hidden in this verse. Ask yourself:

  • Do you really trust the Lord?
  • Are you "doing good" with your life, putting others' needs before your own?
  • What was the last thing you knew you were supposed to do? Are you still doing it? Are you cultivating faithfulness by sticking it out until it's done? (Remember the verse above in James: knowing the right thing to do and not doing it is sin.)
  • Have you learned the secret of delighting in God and loving His plan for your life above your own (see Isaiah 55:8-9)?
  • Are you able to receive blessing when it comes?
  • Have you fully committed your ways to God? That means He's completely in the driver's seat, calling the shots, making the decisions.
  • Really though... Do you trust God?

Are you willing to say "OK" when He shows you the next step to take?

Isaiah showed us exactly what this heart looks like in chapter 6, verse 8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
Here am I. Send me!

I'm often amazed and heartbroken when I hear people say things like, "Yeah, I know God wants me to do [insert something here], but I'm really not willing to give up [insert something here] yet." They are like the pot telling the potter he doesn't know what he's building. They're like a chair, shaking their head at the carpenter. When we do this, we're essentially telling the Creator of the entire universe who knows the number of hairs on our heads that we have a better plan.

I have a very blessed life. If you know me, you know this to be true. I don't say that to boast in my own success, but I am willing to put it on display and say, "Look! God is good, and His plans for you are awesome!" My life isn't blessed because of the outward things you see. It's blessed because of the relationship I have with the one who created me.

The Author, through relationship, communicates to me my purpose.

Be Stoked.

Live your life on purpose because it's the only way worth living. You are unique, and no one else can do it for you.

If you'd like to talk about this more but don't feel comfortable leaving a public comment, please email me at luke.stokes at gmail.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Term Every Programmer Should Know: Blue Baby

One of the most critical skills a programmer can have is the ability to create a blue baby.

I've been saying this for years, but I don't think my fellow engineers understand me. Let me try to explain.

In the 2004 film, Something the Lord Made, two colleagues are pioneering a crazy idea that the heart can operated on successfully. Much of the movie is devoted to them working to save the lives of "blue babies" which are babies who's skin is literally blue due to lack of oxygen in the blood.

Their biggest challenge and much of the movie is devoted to reproducing the problem. Dr. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas spend 13 years together, working to create the blue baby syndrome as a reproducible symptom in dogs.

Thirteen years.

They understood the importance of creating a blue baby.

Without the ability to create the exact same symptoms in an environment they controlled, they never would have had a breakthrough. More babies would have died and it may have been years before someone else was daring enough to attempt open heart surgery.

Every day, our worlds are being shaped and defined by the software we use. Companies and families rely on software and when it's broken, really bad things can happen. When it comes to software development, these same ideas are true. If there's a problem, you have to be able to reproduce it in a consistent, controllable way.

If you're a software engineer, you should be serious about your ability to create a blue baby. How creative and thorough are you when it comes to diagnosing, understanding, and reproducing a software problem? That's where the real skill and experience lie. Once the problem can be consistently reproduced, a few print statements later will often reveal a solution.

I think this idea of a "blue baby" in software development is critical (and this movie portrays it so well). I'm hoping my fellow developers will start using this term along with me. If your colleagues give you a sideways look as you yell, "Eureka! We've got a blue baby!", go ahead and send them this post.

Blue Baby: A term in software development referring to a bug that can be reproduced at will in a controlled environment. 

Your work may not be as important as open-heart surgery, but hopefully it doesn't take you 13 years to reproduce an important bug. What you do matters so fixing it matters too.

As a developer, what do you think? Is this term worthy to enter the lore of tech-speak such as bikeshedding, dogfooding, or rubberducking? (Cal Evans has a great post about the Software Development DSL you might also enjoy)

If you think so, share it with your communities. I'd also love your thoughts on this idea in the comments.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When Was the Last Time You Saw a Master?

When was the last time you saw a master at work in his craft? For me, it was last Thursday and his name is Marco.

Marco was born in Italy and now lives in Costa Rica. Though he's been spearfishing his whole life, he told me he's been at it for "20 or so" years. On the way out to his boat, he offhandedly mentions he's "won some competitions and stuff" when I pry for more details.

Only later out in the water do I realize how much of a master he is.

Marco is an amazing hunter. He wears a camouflage suit, dives down 45-60+ feet like it's nothing, and stays down there forever. He can easily dive much further. That's just how far I saw him dive on Thursday.

Every movement of his fins, his head, or his eyes is as fluid as the water he's in. He's a Michelangelo in the water with a spear gun for a paint brush.

We stayed out there for hours. I worked so hard and was desperate to catch something.


Throughout the day, I swam deeper on a single breath than I have in my entire life and still came up with nothing. At one point I may have even prayed for God to bring a fish in front of me to shoot.

And still I caught nothing. My sinuses still hurt two days later from the pressure of the mask against my face and the equalizing I wasn't doing quickly enough.

Marco caught a ton. I think he caught 8 or so, but I lost count because our driver was constantly making fillets so there would be room enough in the buckets.

Many times I tried to copy his actions, but I never even saw the fish he was getting. He would swim down so far I could barely see him, and the visibility was amazing. The man was a machine, staying down for what had to be minutes at a time.

At one point during the trip, I saw Marco educating our driver (a new guy Marco was trying out) on a better way to cut fillets. It was a flurry of Spanish, but I could tell he was being patient and specific.

He was teaching and training.

Back on shore, we rolled up to a restaurant in Brasilito where Marco had some friends. They agreed to cook up some of the fish he just caught, and we had an amazing lunch.

Marco's English is fairly good and my Spanish sucks, but is improving daily. As we stumbled through our vocabulary short-comings, he started explaining to me some things which may have given me more success. He talked about going down deep and then just stopping. Waiting. Sitting at the bottom and making slow movements with your head to look for the fish. He commented on the gun I was using and even mentioned a friend I could borrow from next time. He explained how important practice is and getting your lungs in shape.

Later I realized he was mentoring me. He was the master and I was the apprentice.

That used to be the normal way to transfer skills from one generation to the next. But how often do we see it today?

I've heard many of my entrepreneurial friends talk about the value of mentors. In a recent Entreleadership Podcast, Michael Hyatt said if he could tell the 10-years-ago version of himself one thing, it would be to hire a mentor much sooner. Most intelligent people understand we can't do great things completely on our own. We all need an outside view, someone with great experience and wisdom.

So why are they so hard to find? Why aren't there more Marcos in the world?

I think part of the answer is, they are there, we just don't know about them. They are busy honing and enjoying their craft. Marco fishes just about every day and he's often alone (though friends and tourists pay good money to join him). Mentors have to be sought out and, usually, they have to be paid.

I was shocked to hear how much some of my friends pay the mentors in their lives. It's an investment and from everyone I hear who has made it, a really good one.

So this is something I'm hoping to take more seriously. I need more mentors and I need to mentor others. I have a lot of peer groups that I'm extremely grateful for, but there's something about spending time with a master that simply can't be equaled.

Do you have mentors in your life? How did you find them?

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Strong Will is Better than No Will

Yesterday at Playa Danta
The other night, after Devon was fast asleep, I surveyed the evening's events like a commander prevailing over the battlefield. The struggles this night included not wanting to finish dinner or go to bed. The last few months with my 3-year-old have been challenging because he's a really great kid who has recently discovered an iron will.

I love my children deeply. Like most parents, I want the best for them which includes personalities others are drawn to. When my son throws a tantrum, it hurts on so many levels. I wonder if it's just a "phase" or if he's acting out because of some deeper need that isn't being met. At various times, I'm flooded with emotions including frustration, sadness, disbelief, embarrassment, concern, and desperation.

I've read plenty of books. I've tried all kinds of tactics.

Sometimes I just feel like a failure as a parent. I know unconditional love wins in the end and I've been encouraged by parents who assure me that I'm not alone. Honestly, my expectations are probably out of whack a bit too. Devon's attitude is usually awesome, full of smiles, hugs and kisses... I guess I just want him that way 24 hours a day.

I think parenting is about training and leading; teaching and encouraging. It's about patience, consistency, and persistence. It's also about praying.

So as I prayed that night and thought through what I might have done differently or how to approach the next skirmish, I was greatly encouraged by a simple thought:

A strong will is better than no will.

I'm so glad my son actually has a will! He has desires, expectations, and needs. He wants things out of life and isn't willing to just let life happen to him. A great peace came to me when I considered what it would be like if he had no will. If he was a pushover about everything. That, I think, would be of much greater concern.

Devon can be taught about consequences, good and bad decisions, and healthy authority (and the reasons for it). We're already seeing some great breakthroughs where he's evaluating options using his mind instead of shutting down via emotional overload.

But what if he had no will? How would I teach him to care?

This simple thought of encouragement reminded me also of how many people go through life without invoking their wills. They don't live life on purpose but instead just drift through it "getting by" until the day it's over.

That's a tragedy. Your life is too beautiful, unique and precious to just let it fade away. Your passions, desires and dreams are there for a purpose. Please don't ignore them.

A strong will isn't a bad thing. It's a gift. It can change the world.

As I hug my son and listen to him say, "I love you so, so, so, so much, Daddy," I can't help but think of Steve and Will NeSmith. Nine days ago, their world changed completely. A tweet from Steve reminded me to hug my kids and every time I think of Will, I do exactly that. Please pray for Will and the NeSmith family. Read the full story here:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Father's Day Tribute

It's been almost five years since my parents passed away. In the summer of 2007, my mom's cancer returned after 6 years in remission and cut her life short. My father passed away unexpectedly a few months later due to a multitude of health issues, including a failed liver. Medication, stress, and mental challenges I'll never fully understand destroyed one of the greatest men I'll ever know. He raised a family with four kids, did his best to live his dreams, and somehow kept the same wife in the process. Though he battled his demons, many of which were truly out of his control, he was the father everyone wished they had.

George Stokes was a man who could literally do anything. When he had a dream, he went after it. Saving nickels and dimes for years, pinching every penny, he flew to London and purchased his dream cara '65 Jaguar XKE. He owned a bicycle shop and used to ride hills for 45 minutes during his lunch breaks. He loved working on cars and did everything from full engine rebuilds to complete paint jobs. He was a database architect before there was such a thing and came in as a heavy-hitter contractor at large corporations you've heard of. He was self-employed for as long as I knew him, and he always made time for us, even if that meant sitting on his lap in the home office while he explained a database design.

He believed anything was possible and raised me to think the same. He loved sailing, so he bought a boat (which we later lived on) and took trips to Catalina, Mexico, and Anacapa which included scuba diving, lobster, albacore, and some of the best fish I've ever eaten.

He loved to surf and built one of the first computer scoring systems ever to be used outdoors (certainly the first used at a beach). He eventually became the president of the Association of Surfing Professionals and travelled the world twice a year for their board meetings.

It's because of my dad that I enjoyed the surf at Playa Grande today, the day before Father's Day. The surf was good and thanks to my brother's board and generosity, I caught some fun waves. It was my father who taught me to surf.

As I took my three year old son into the water on my shoulders and heard him shouting with joy, I couldn't help but think of how my father must have done the same with me. I remember surfing for the first time with him when I was five years old. I can remember him taking me out in surf well over his head and being scared for my life.  Every perfect wave I've caught, every beautiful sunset I've seen out there in the water... I owe them all to him.

My father was an amazing man. It saddens me to think my kids will never know him and many only knew his last ten (troubled) years. I love my dad and more importantly, I know he deeply loved me.

The Bible calls us to honor our parents, but that's difficult to do when they are no longer with us.

Exodus 20:12
"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you."

I hope he was honored today as I surfed and played with his grandson in the waves of Costa Rica. I hope he smiled that full-of-life smile he had and told anyone around him that would listen, "That's my boy and that's my grandson."

I have great peace when it comes to my parents no longer being on this earth with us. I believe the experiences of life shape our character in ways few other things can. My loss brought me closer to God and to life. It has enabled me to encourage others through similar times.

Romans 8:28
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."

Sitting here in this paradise with my family, I can't help but think of my parents and how much I would have enjoyed sharing this with them.

If you have the opportunity, hug your dad a little longer tomorrow. Cherish the time you have together because it's so easy to take it for granted. Time runs together as just normal moments in life... Until one day those moments are gone, and you realize just how special they were.

If holidays are painful because you're still hurting through  missing the ones you love, give me a call or drop me an email. I won't have any answers, but sometimes it's helpful just to talk to someone who's been there and is trying to understand.

Happy Father's Day.

(My parents would have loved the view tonight off the back deck)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Relationships Are What Matter

Right before we left on this grand adventure, I had the privilege of eating lunch with my friend Derek. I love hanging out with Derek because he's not only known my wife longer than I have, but he enjoys talking about things that really matter. We talked about philosophy, belief, purpose, destiny, and everything in between. One of the key topics was relationships.

Relationships are what matter.

Unfortunately, I often forget that in my day-to-day activities. I've got my plans, I'm doing my thing, and I'm making things happen. I keep up with my kids, my wife, my team members, and some friends, but ultimately, life is often preoccupied with what I think I'm supposed to be doing.

If you've followed this blog or my rants on Twitter/Facebook, you know I'm all about living life on purpose. I do believe we are created with purpose and, as my friend Derek put so well during our lunch, your purpose may not be what you originally thought or what someone else might convince you to believe. It might be as simple as building relationships.

You may lose your job, start two more companies, or move to another state, but what sticks with you are the relationships you build along the way. The people you know and the people you let into your world are some of the most valuable things in existence. They can't be bought, sold, faked, or imagined. True friendships are something so rare, so important, when you have them you should be shouting Sunkmanitu Tanka Owaci! from the ridge top.

We're only four days into 10 weeks abroad and already I'm thinking differently about the relationships and friendships I have and how very important they are to me. I'm also building new relationships out here, most notably with Chris, my brother's business partner and the half-owner of the house we're staying in.

This trip wouldn't be possible without relationships, all coming together to make something amazing happen. I'm so very blessed by the people I know. If you're reading this, please understand how much I love and cherish you.

The past few nights, as we've started to settle into a new normal here in Costa Rica, we haven't even thought about turning on the TV. Instead, we're investing in each other. Reading more stories to the kids or Corinne and I hanging out together and talking about life (like we did in the pool last night).

Relationships are what matter.

I'm already missing many of them. I see how I may have taken some for granted or how I didn't communicate often enough the value they have in my life.

Don't take your relationships for granted. This is your reminder, your wake up call. Stop the rat race for just a moment and think about the people in your life and how much they've blessed you. Let them know you appreciate them and look for opportunities to show it.

You never know, a relationship may lead to working in an office like the one I worked in yesterday. (My wife took this awesome picture.)

If this post encourages you, and you want to do something a little different about it, give a shout out in the comments to a relationship that matters to you and then send them this post. Maybe that's corny, but I don't care. I'm giving up the comments here if you want to do it. Tell someone today how glad you are to have them in your life. Tell them your story doesn't work without them.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Love Is Never a Bad Choice

At times like tonight, I don't feel like I have many parenting "answers." If often feels like a balancing act between pride, pure joy, discipline, training, manipulation, power struggles, frustrations, emotions, tantrums, rationality and irrationality with love fighting to lead throughout. I've read books, I've sought counsel, I've laughed, and I've cried. The greatest joy imaginable combined with the deepest frustrations and moments of hopelessness.

With two little ones now, we're constantly working to be better parents. We want to lead, teach, encourage and discipline as needed. Most days are good, some days are not. Since returning from my week-long trip to Chicago, my three year old son, Devon, has been acting up quite a bit more than normal. I've read before that some kids do this as a way to process their emotions after having a parent gone for so long. I think that's what happened here, and I've been doing my best to give him extra attention and love, even falling asleep next to him a night or two. After one of the toughest weeks of parenting we've had in a while, I thought things were looking up until tonight at dinner.

We had company over and Devon was yelling and banging the table in order to get attention among the conversation. This has become a habit we haven't been very successful at influencing him in, but this is one of the first times he's acted that way with company over. Tonight it culminated in him, without warning, throwing his glass right at me. The small mason jar actually hit me in the lip and split it. He's never done anything like that, and it was shocking. I took him to bed immediately, and of course he wasn't happy.

After our guests left, I thought he had already fallen asleep, but it turns out he hadn't. I went in and told him again how his behavior was unacceptable. As mad and as frustrated as I was, his hug and apology softened my heart. We prayed together and as I got up to leave the room, he started into another tantrum. After closing the door and looking at my wife, I was at a loss. I told her, "I don't know what else to do." Should I go back in there? Do I stand my ground and hope he learns a valuable lesson? I can still taste the blood on my lip.

I felt a still small voice whisper in my head, "You can always love."

Love is never a bad choice.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
For some reason, as a parent, I somehow get confused between loving and "giving in" or not being consistent or firm. I try to pick my battles and use "reason" to determine appropriate disciplinary responses. I'm trying to love my children so they will grow up to be well behaved and (hopefully) loving to others.

But is discipline the best way to teach love? Is one more timeout really going to make it stick?

I decided to open the door and go back in there, pick up my son, hug him, and lie down together until he fell asleep. He apologized again and I reassured him it was OK, I had already forgiven him. He was still emotional and upset about not finishing his dinner, but I was able to lovingly and firmly tell him his options were to lay down quietly with me or go back to his own bed (he still prefers his crib to the twin we have in his room).

He chose to be quiet, and we just laid there until he fell asleep, only talking quietly once or twice more.

I don't have many answers and often feel like I have none. But tonight, in the midst of my frustration and pain (both physically and emotionally), I may have learned one thing: Love is never a bad choice.

Lord, help me love like you do, even when we least deserve it. Help me teach love by demonstrating it. Let me trust you to draw my children closer to your Spirit.


Monday, May 21, 2012

A Followup to Intentional Living

My last post, Can "Employees" Live Life Intentionally?, has been one of my favorite blogging experiences to date. The comments have meant so much to me because, through dialog, I better understand myself, my friends and the world around me.

I'm a very passionate person. I think a lot about significance (it's one of my Strengths Finder themes), which is why this topic in general is so important to me. I'm also a high D (and I) on the DISC profile. I drive hard, form opinions, and make things happen. I don't shy away from debate because a part of me needs it to form my next opinion (or refine the one I just had 5 minutes ago). The downside of this personality is that I'm often a steam roller, plowing over peoples' emotions and opinions without even realizing it. For much of my life, I've had friends tell me something along the lines of, "Well, what you said/did was offensive... but I know your heart and what you really meant."

My heart on this topic is for you to find your purpose and live it to the best of your ability. I'm naive about many things, but I want to believe at some point in life, we are all given a choice to follow the Author's plan or write our own. I believe His plan is perfect and I hope you'll have joy, peace and fulfillment following it.

At the same time, I struggle with verses like Romans 9:20, 21 and especially, 22 or Proverbs 16:4. Is it possible your plan isn't so great after all? Or do we choose our own version which may lead to destruction which then also gets written into the larger story?

The main reason for writing this followup is because I saw a friend at church yesterday and realized I really wanted his opinion on this topic. We had worked together in ministry before and I knew he and his family spent some time overseas doing missionary work. I also knew he was in what might be considered a "normal" job now. The response he sent me via email was so incredible. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. I'm so thankful for his permission to post it here:
Hey Luke!

It was great seeing you guys, too. I'm so excited for your upcoming trip. We loved our time in China back in 2006. We were there for exactly two months goofing around, learning more about the culture, meeting some amazing people, etc. You guys are going to love it!

As for thoughts on your posting... my views have definitely evolved (or devolved) over time. For what it's worth, I don't necessarily disagree or agree with the posting, but my indifference is not due to the subject or the way it's presented. I has more to do with my own experiences and how I view certain issues in life.

The older I get, the less "dogmatic" I become - which practically means that categories get skewed or evaporate, rules become suggestions, and most arguments seem to be little more than an exercise in human interaction. Don't get me wrong - I care deeply about family, social justice issues, the environment, international security, ethnic relations, etc., but many philosophical questions like whether "employees can live life intentionally" just don't arouse much consideration for where I am in life right now. For a business owner, I think it is a tremendous question to ask.

So, what does it even mean to live life intentionally? To build a business, pursue your dreams, travel the world, raise a family, create, invent, write, love, learn, etc.? One could probably list all the possible options, and I assume "to live intentionally" could mean to do anything except "give into the system" of a drab, boring, monotonous, painful 40 year career you didn't enjoy.

With such a definition of intentional living (or at least an implied definition), I could see how anyone who is working in a more "traditional job" could feel quite alienated by the posting. But I know you personally, and I know that is not what you would want people to feel. Rather, you are hoping to encourage them to pursue whatever path will help them find greater fulfillment in their lives.

Every few weeks, I have the privilege to work with some clients that are in... [redacted] ...some of their employees cannot even spell their spouse's name. Many have a history of heart disease, drug abuse, domestic violence, environmental hazards, etc., and it breaks my heart to hear employee after employee waive their company health plan because they cannot afford $15/week to have corporate medical insurance. Despite all my projected pity upon their situation, it is always such a joy to hear their stories, laugh with them, get to know who they are, what they do, what they enjoy, where they hang out, all about their loved ones, etc.

So there I am in my clean business attire, private university education, urban-international background, sitting with employees smelling of smoke and manufacturing grime, deep "in the system" with little or no-way out at their juncture in life. Are they living life intentionally? What does that even mean in their circumstances?

[ edited to remove a personal story of a Vietnam vet and the challenges he faced in his family and in life ]

I think there is so much more to life that we can ever know or understand, and I think the whole point of it is to love and respect one another during the short time we have on earth - no matter where we find ourselves. Whether in Nashville or NY or China or Hicktown, USA, whether building a high-tech company or pushing buttons on a factory press or negotiating peace in Iraq... people make career choices for various reasons, and whether it is considered "intentional living" or not is quite subjective.

My mom asked me when I was a little boy, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Apparently I answered, "I want to be a daddy." Coming from a kid who didn't grow up with a father, that was quite an interesting response - but it has definitely stayed with me. I find more fulfillment as a dad than I ever did trekking the globe or preaching or smuggling Bibles. Those were exciting activities, but playing catch with my sons is a true slice of heaven.

I think that is the same for so many others (whether than slice of heaven is found in an occupation, relationship, experience, etc.) Some things trump everything else.

For a business owner, you are right to be concerned for the well-being of your employees. I would even say it is "noble" of you to encourage entrepreneurship and freedom of movement for your team members (it is very rare compared to business that would rather squeeze the last dime out of their workers). So I think it is great that you are thinking about employees in this manner. I would just add that you may only see (and probably see) just a limited portion of what really matters in the lives of others. For them "living intentionally" may have very little to do with their career.

And that might be the point anyway - to continue to get to know other people's dreams, hopes, fears, joys, etc. That's what makes life.... well, life! So those are some thoughts... and I didn't even use the word "calling" or "purpose" or "destiny" ; )

Would love to have lunch or something before you head south! Cheers.

I've read this over and over again. I can't get enough of it. This is probably my favorite part: I would just add that you may only see (and probably see) just a limited portion of what really matters in the lives of others. For them "living intentionally" may have very little to do with their career.

That is the truth. We spend so many of our waking hours "at work," it's easy for me to make a generalization and say the time there has to be significant. That's probably short-sighted thinking. Ideally, I'd like that time to be an intentional part of your purpose because I like efficiency and spending so much time at work on something that doesn't directly impact your God-given plan saddens me. But I clearly don't get the whole picture... and it would be arrogant of me to think I do.

I hope you got something out of this unusually long post. It was probably more for me than anyone else.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Can "Employees" Live Life Intentionally?

An entrepreneur friend of mine sent me an email recently after reading some of the posts here:
You and I are in the somewhat unique situation where we are owners of a small business where we are not simply drawing a salary as an employee with a direct boss and in the situation where we are just an employee and small piece of a much bigger business. As the owners of the business, with our financial obligations being met by the business, we can make our own rules and set the direction of how we can spend our time intentionally since we have the complete freedom to do this as owners. Most people that are employees that are not financially independent don’t have our level of luxury with our time. So I think it is much harder for these people to completely live intentionally as you discuss in your blog because of the additional real constraints they have on their lives vs you and I. 
Knowing what I know about you and I as owners, the thought that might be in many readers minds is, "yah, it is easy for him to live like that because he doesn’t have a boss telling him what he needs to do to remain employed, only 2 weeks vacation and bills very close to his monthly income…."
He encouraged me to discuss this topic here and as I started thinking about it, I started getting really fired up! This is something I'm super passionate about.

Can an "employee" live life on purpose or are they just a cog in a wheel, rolling on with no control?

You may think this is nit-picking, but before I dive into it, let's start with the word "employee." We don't use it. Dave Ramsey (who never wanted to have any employees, but now employs over 300) often says an employee is someone who shows up late, leaves early, and steals while they are there. In that company culture where I spent almost 4 years, they are adamant about not having employees, but instead having team members. Team members are there because they believe in the company mission and want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Can you work for someone else and still have the freedom to live your life according to a purpose and a plan? Absolutely!

Here is my email reply to my friend and fellow company owner:
I agree to some extent, but each one of our team members is living this way also. They are all contractors and they set their own hours. They can prioritize at any time and spend time with their family first. If an opportunity comes up, they jump on it. As an example, Adam, our tech support and front-end developer in Australia, is leaving this week to travel the entire continent. I think he'll be gone for about two months [edit: it will actually be more like six months]. He'll have sporadic WIFI and his level of input will certainly drop, but we're super excited for him! We're going miss him for sure, but we're bringing on someone else in a more full-time manner to make up for it. 
I think the age of large corporate offices and strict schedules is passing away. Life is more than the 8 hours we spend in our cubicals. I hope more bosses think this way, allow for flexible schedules, and encourage their team members to be team members and not just employees (Dave Ramsey's EntreLeadership stuff has a lot on this subject). 
Some of my posts are directed at business owners, but I also hear from those with a regular job that are encouraged by them also. Just the other night I saw my friend [redacted] at the zoo who works for [redacted] and he told me how something is stirring in his heart about doing his own business on the side and part of that stirring is because of my blog and the tweets I send with pictures of me working outside on the deck. 
It's not for everyone, but I think for those who it is for, they need to go for it instead of living their life wondering what might have been. Jon Acuff, one of Dave's Speakers Group guys has a great book called Quitter that explains a lot of this really well. The first chapter is "Don't quit your day job". It then goes from there to explain what needs to be done to wisely follow your dreams and move beyond just a hobby to something that can support your family.
Literally right after sending that, I saw an email from Adam in my inbox with this photo:

He and his family were on a trial run over the weekend, getting prepared for their big trip.

That's what I'm talking about!

I believe you can live intentionally and on purpose if you're willing to put in the work and make it happen. If you have a plan for your life and are taking the right steps to get there, every moment has purpose. Does that mean you can pick up your family and go travel the world for a couple months? I think it should... but most employers just aren't there yet.

Pensions are already a thing of the past. I'm hoping cubical farms and big corporate offices will follow. We aren't meant to live our lives based on a time clock and a desk. You'll probably never hear a story of a father, lying on his deathbed who's last thoughts are, "I wish I had worked more."

It doesn't work for every profession, but when possible, I love the idea of working remotely, setting your own flexible hours, and still kicking butt to get stuff done.

Some may think, "Bah, work is work. That's why they call it work. Get over it, get it done, and go home." Fair enough. But what about life? Is life worth living on purpose? If the answer is yes, how much of your life is spent at work? If it's a big enough portion of your existence, why wouldn't you want it to matter? Even if you hate your current job, go read Quitter and figure out what steps you can take today to move closer to your dream.

Life is shorter than you think. Don't let it slip by without making the most of it.

I'm thinking this post will create some controversy. I'm OK with that. If you know me well, you know I'll actually enjoy it. So please, feel free to leave your comments below. Tell me why I'm wrong or what I'm missing. Help me grow. Thank you!

[Edit: the comments here have been so fantastic (thank you!). If you'd like to add yours as well, please do so. I also posted a followup post you may enjoy.]