Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.

introspection

Experiences

What's the relationship between who we are and what we do? Why is it that sometimes we open ourselves up to the moment seizing us and other times we try our hardest to close ourselves off to it entirely?

I look at someone like Louis C.K. and I think about the fact that he's a depressed comic who made it to age 40 before he told the world how he sees himself: as a fat, less-than-successful version of himself who consistently gets dealt the shittiest hand. He even pokes fun at his own ability to subtly put himself in these crappy situations by being passive, anti-masculine, and a general sad sack towards everyone he encounters.

How did a man who feels that way about himself get so successful? Did experiences happen to Louis that got him to that point, in spite of his depression? Did he power through every miserable moment, making his own fate? Is it possible he didn't realize how shitty he felt until later? The last one seems a bit unlikely given the content of his jokes, but beyond that I haven't a clue. Do successful people plan to be successful, do they plot out decisions that will get them to where they want to go? Or does it just happen to them and they just get lucky?

I should clarify. By successful, I mean successful from the perspective of the soul: fulfilled, respected, and capable of interacting with the world in a way that leads sometimes to satisfaction and rarely to deep despair, except when appropriate. Successful means living the life you want to live, one of balance of health, heart, brain, and body.

That sounds like utopian bullshit. Do I even believe in that? Does it even make sense to wish my life were better? Do hands get dealt to people? Do people make their own way within the constraints placed on them, and can they ever really defy those constraints? Is it possible to find a place where you can understand the balance of things happening to you, things you can change, things you can cause to transpire, and opportunities that are worth pursuing? Is that how things work? Or is this just one piece of cloth, dyed many times, fading from color to color with no beginnings, no endings, no causation and no chance to raise your hand and say "Hey I prefer X to Y?"

Or maybe it's just about presenting yourself to the world and letting yourself mold it and it mold you. You are a part of your environment in much the same way your environment is part of you. We affect our surroundings in so many ways. What if the river is determined by the shape of the rocks in it? Focus on polishing your edges, finding your way of being that works and that feels OK sometimes and rarely overwhelming, and the years will wash over you, rounding your corners for sure but changing your shape just the same.

'People say "Seize the Moment," but I think it's just the opposite.'

  • Boyhood

My Weaknesses

I'm a Product Manager with 4+ years of experience and I'm looking for my next gig. If you think I'd be a good fit at your startup, check out my résumé and get in touch!

Transitioning careers is jarring, like coming up for air after being underwater. It's a big context change, especially if you're like me and tend to focus very intensely on your work up until your last day. As part of re-orienting myself I decided to make a list of my strengths and weaknesses as a Product Manager to better visualize where I am in my career. I then took that information and built out some short- and long-term career goals for myself. It was, to be honest, a really boring exercise.

For strengths, perhaps boring is correct: I know what I'm good at because it's what I've been doing recently. It's in the past. Some of those skills are routine. For others, I've gone past the 10,000 hour mark on a few and I barely think about the activity itself. Other skills are well on their way and I am simply waiting for the next major challenge in my career to spark more growth.

For weaknesses the story is different: I may have attempted to build a skill and failed, I may not have spent enough time doing the activity, I may be naturally limited in that regard, or I may not know about the skill at all yet. In any case, weaknesses are skills you haven't mastered yet.

In order to land your dream job you'll probably have to consider both sides of the equation. Good employers want to see that you can get started right away but also that you have the room and motivation to grow. In this framework your strengths describe your current value and give employers a good sense of what you can excel at right now, while weaknesses describe your future potential. If treated well and fostered, weaknesses become strengths become mastered skills.

So why do we focus so much on our strengths when searching for jobs, shying away from those aspects of ourselves we know we have to put time into? It's a fallacy to think that potential employers believe we're perfect. It's equally wrong to think at any stage of a career that we have nothing left to learn. Furthermore, if our potential employer cares about our development as much as we do, why would they want to hire someone who feels they have no more room to grow?

Let's explore this. In the following section I will lay out my weaknesses as a Product Manager with as much humility as I can muster. I'll include a clear plan for developing that skill. Hopefully we can paint a picture of a success-in-the-making, rather than a snapshot of past failure.

My Weaknesses, My Plan

  1. I do not define KPIs far enough ahead of time - Simply put, I should "know my number" before any feature hits production. My number can change with further validation, but it's important to take a stand. I am historically unwilling to set anything less than a quantitative, validated hypothesis, whereas KPIs frequently require a bit of intuitive guessing. I plan on defining KPIs in the same way I insist on engineering estimates. I will not be correct at first, but I will improve with time.
  2. I defer to Engineers in feasibility explorations - As in, I don't challenge engineers to innovate as frequently as I should. Instead, I internalize the burden of innovation into the Product department, making it "our" problem. This empowers engineers (intended) while insidiously altering the validated feature set (unintended). Instead of doing this, I plan on insisting that we support the validated features or else not start development.
  3. I assume I know the competition - Sometimes this is true. Actually, in my last few jobs, it was always true due to the nature of the business. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't be double- and triple-checking on a regular basis. Especially where domain expertise and early onboarding are concerned, knowing and cataloging your assumptions about the competition is paramount to building a good Product vision, strategy, and roadmap. I plan on making competitive research a part of my morning and my afternoon: the former to uncover new findings, the latter to draw actionable conclusions.
  4. I converse better with Individual Contributors and groups than with Execs - My preference has always been towards managing and building trust amongst those people who do the actual work. I try to shelter individuals from the drive-bys and ephemeral asks of executives. I can improve on this drastically by learning to speak with execs in a way that helps them feel heard and understood. That's the best way to prevent drive-bys in the long term. I plan to continue to be as honest as possible while also providing real-time and periodic (read: predictable) feedback to executives in order to inform them of product progress or lack thereof.
  5. I choose social capital over product superiority - As someone who spent quite a bit of time project managing various teams I know the value of social capital when it comes to getting projects done on time, on budget, and to spec. As a good Product Manager I also know that up-front product decisions need to be made with the company's best interests as first priority. Social capital is important, but making product decisions based on team makeup or mood can drastically pollute the vision of a given feature. I plan on building strategies for listening to ideas without making promises so that individuals know their input is valuable but I make the final decision.
  6. I try to do too much at once - My facetious mantra has always been "Laser Focus...on everything at the same time." The responsibilities of the Product Manager are myriad and overwhelming, but it is always on me and no one else to manage those and still find a way to focus on the most important product we have to define, validate, or build. I plan on rejecting more product ideas verbally while keeping them in the icebox to look at later, building weekly schedules around specific initiatives, and improving my ROI calculations on given features in order to always be working on the most important product at the given time.

Final Words

That was a little strange. It's odd to think about people as four dimensional beings when considering them for a need or role that exists in the past and present. However, at least as a personal exercise, I've now given myself a 3-6 month roadmap of skills I need to learn. While I know it will be exciting and rewarding to pursue the above skills, I also know that doing so will uncover many more items to add to the list.

My advice to you is to approach new weaknesses as impartially as possible until you can understand them as nascent opportunities. Allowing areas of weakness to affect you adversely will end up seeding discouragement at the prospect of turning that weakness into a skill. After all, the whole point of this exercise is to better know yourself. The fact that you're doing it at all means you have the wherewithal to turn any weakness you may find into a solid skill.

Silver Bullet Syndrome

It's easy to feel broken, and easier still to feel that you must be whole. We suffer constantly from the need to complete our thoughts, to see our dreams unfold in the present, to watch success—however defined—blossom in front of our eyes to the delight of our loved ones and admirers. And every time the yearning starts, when that misguided ambition begins to take over, you can be assured disappointment is not far behind.

There are no silver bullets. There are no cure-alls. There are no easy, lasting wins. Your path, whatever it may be, is a long one. And the sooner you learn to accept that the better.

Loss of Dreams

I have lots of dreams. I want to make a lasting impact on the world that lifts up the worlds' most vulnerable. I want to run a marathon. I want to live at peace with myself and with my natural surroundings. I want to learn without purpose and explore new ways of building old technology as a way of reliving the experience of my ancestors. I want to give happiness and passion to my loved ones and watch them flourish over many years. I want to enable those around me to experience one day after the next full of stimulation, community, and hope. I want to do these things and more.

So, what? Other than revealing some post-adolescent angst and a lot of naïve raw emotion, what's so great about my dreams versus anyone else's? To be honest, nothing. And that's what makes this next part so powerful.

Everyone has ambition. Everyone strives towards some goal regardless of their location on Maslow's hierarchy. And after correcting for privilege/luck/socioeconomics, everyone approaches goals the same way. Which is to say, most people don't succeed. Everyone fails to achieve at least one of their goals, and everyone remembers the pain of that failure.

It's that pain that leads us to believe in silver bullets. A childish hope arises to urge us to avoid that pain and search for shortcuts. Soon, we stop thinking of it as childish and begin believing our lie that dreams can come if we wait, if we just do this, if we simply buy that. The resulting failure is always a shock, an unwanted guest, an offense against our best judgment.

My Dreams, Lost

As a young person I strongly believed that going to college and becoming a doctor would be the salve for my adolescent confusion and the perfect focus for my intense nature. And, because I allowed myself to expect an external force to change me internally, I found school to be as confoundingly imperfect as I found myself.

Last year I started a business. It was bound to be the answer to feeling disenfranchised in a large company and it would certainly make me feel "in control" of my own life. It didn't. I got lost in the game and had a great time but the company folded and I fell into deep depression almost solely because I felt I had been lied to by my own intuition.

Therapists label this "emotional myopia." My parents call these experiences "character building." Some would point to the entitlement of my generation as a major factor in setting bad expectations. I am confident that none of these people remember what it's like to run.

Run

This year I started running. I started slowly with an eye on running a healthy, injury-free half marathon in May. I went from 2 miles once a week to 5 miles three times a week with a long 8 mile run on the weekend and I'm still increasing my mileage today. That's a lot of time to think. It's a lot of time to be in pain, too.

Your brain does something fascinating when it's in long-term pain. It floods you with opioid-receptor binding endorphins which mimic the pain-fighting power of strong drugs. You can feel the pain, understand it, but it doesn't stop you from continuing. You begin to associate the twinge of fatigued muscles with the light, airy high common to runners. You begin to recognize that distance, time, and effort are all relative. If you plan for it, if you have the fitness to spare, you can keep going forever.

Runs have an eventual end, but running does not. As one of the most natural human activities running connects you with the most basic human experiences. There's the pain, the joy, and the intrinsic desire to keep going. There's the meditative state you arrive in around mile 2 and never leave. There's the full understanding of how your body moves and works. And then there's the mental transcendence.

It starts with the endorphin rush of the runner's high, sweeping you into a world where pain and effort are an end unto themselves, a joyful experience that gets you to your eventual goal. You begin to lose yourself to the process of being in motion, to the awareness of being inside your body and yet not the same as it. You begin to realize that goals are big and they take time to reach, but each moment in motion is its own reward. The myopia melts away when you run and you become aware of the vast, deep chasm between where you are and where you are headed. And when that happens and your joy is boundless as you stride over the ground, the challenge ahead crystallizes as massive, painful, and exciting.

Dreams Found

I found my dreams running. I don't know how you'll find yours. I do know that in order to cross the divide you will have to embrace pain and learn to enjoy it. I do know that believing in silver bullets will leave you alone with your hope for a solution, and hope is not enough.

Hope can guide us to our dreams and inspire us to challenge ourselves, but it cannot run the race for you. Looking back at my failed attempts, I had an abundance of hope at every stage, regardless of my success.

Embrace the breadth of the path ahead and you can find joy in the journey. When joy replaces hope as your primary motivator you will see it mingle with the pain of temporary setbacks and propel you forward past them. You will begin to own your failures as equal to your successes and recognize that even if this run has come to an end, your running days have just begun.

There are no silver bullets. There are no shortcuts. There is only the thrill of the journey. Make every moment joyful. Your arrival is imminent.

Two feet on the ground

a partial fiction

Ever since I was little I have been living somewhere between dreams and waking life. I was never diagnosed with any condition, and I don't think I should be. My breaks from reality seem to stem from a stubborn belief that my own future and those of my loved ones can be better than our respective pasts. I don't know if that qualifies as an illness. I don't know if I want to know. But I am made painfully aware of this phenomenon each and every time it happens.

It's scary at times. Every now and then I speak to a close friend and realize my recollection and theirs are not aligned. Not in the sense of what color shirt I was wearing or who was dating whom in high school, but on the level of themes, of intent, and of defining moments within a cherished memory. I'm always shocked by which memories are which, to be honest. Sometimes it's obvious that a thought does not fit, and other times it is only through painful discovery that my reality is not yours.

I first remember being aware of this around the time I turned 13. I was obsessed with lucid dreaming and keen on developing my skills so I could fly and create what turned out to be very awkward sexual encounters with the pretty girls from school. I was good at it. Sometimes in my dreams I would look into mirrors and see faces that weren't mine, and upon waking I would catch glimpses of my dream in the shadows of the bathroom mirror, waiting to be unlocked in the daylight.

These early experiences with the line between dreaming and the waking world were deeply affected by my childhood. On one hand I was voraciously reading all the fantasy and sci-fi I could get my hands on. Dreaming was a big part of these adventures, and was typically used by their authors as a window into the true self of the dreamer or the nature of his or her quest. On the other hand, my family had been shattered by the murder of my Aunt Ilene by my uncle her ex husband and the arrival of Luke, my cousin, who my Mother agreed to take in when no one else could or would. I needed frequent escapes from that moment at age nine when I saw my mom crumple to the floor in numb shock after receiving The Call through those moments when Luke in his misplaced rage would force me into my room in order to tune out his hateful screams and on through high school when my parents threw in the towel and got a divorce after twenty-odd years of loving us and maybe half that of loving each other.

And so I hid. I hid in books and video games and music. I never got into trouble or got less than a C on a report card. Instead, I built worlds and I explored them and I asked myself "where are you now?" and my other selves would answer "Somewhere quiet. Somewhere better." My curiosity of the world beyond the visible grew and I went on to study philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and religion in college. I found ways to cope. This isn't a story about my pain.

Somewhere in that hiding I realized the power of deception. Of deceiving oneself by focusing so hard on one facet of the diamond that the rest of the world disappears. Eventually—inevitably— something else would creep in and start construction on new ideas. I would be reading a book and the characters would leap off the page and into new adventures when my eyes were closed, but also when my eyes were open. There was magic in the world, dragons from ages past, and everyone was implicated in their prophecies. My ability to imagine grew exponentially and my real life friends were those who enjoyed playing pretend with Dungeons & Dragons, laser tag, and fort building in the woods. It made me happy to be able to escape and find new places to sit on rocks and think about what I might like for dinner. My life meant something when all that stood between myself and the world burnt to cinders was my own restraint in casting that very powerful fireball spell. And so I never thought twice about "letting my imagination run wild," as my imagination-Mother put it. She was like my real Mother, but she wasn't sad.

And that's the thing. No one ever told me "you're not really a wizard," or to stop playing pretend, because that's what kids do. But my imagination wasn't "regular" in that sense, and without any critique it began an insidious infiltration of my day-to-day life. Mostly it's minor incidents, like thinking I've not watched an episode of television because I remember it ending differently. Or, in the case of romance, I allow myself to become entwined in post-relationship intrigue and succumb to notions that my unrequited love is being returned when it isn't. That's even alright, except for the times when I act on it and have it thrown in my face that no, we never agreed to get back together and no, saying "i love you" when we break up does not indicate that you're secretly with him and not me because no one can know about us for very important and valid reasons. But then there are the times when I swear he deserved it because everyone knows you walk on the LEFT down the subway stairs (I had just decided on this a minute ago) and so it was OK to shove a little. Or the time when you wrote those incredibly hurtful messages because XKCD set such an important precedent on the matter.

So it would be a mistake to say I haven't been hurt or hurt others by this little foible of mine. I also still enjoy video games, getting lost in fantasy worlds, and reading until my eyes hurt. And I've found ways to leverage this iffy grip on reality into new ideas, new companies, and some pretty great friendships. So, it's not all bad. But what is it in the first place, and is it possible to keep myself and the others around me safe? Is this actually what being crazy is? Are we all a little bit crazy?

I'm more concerned with the effects of this behavior, though. Am I actually creating a better world for myself by denying the world we live in? It does not seem to follow logically that by ignoring one reality we may create another. Can any reality exist in a vacuum without being informed by a previous reality, and honestly, isn't ignoring something simply another way of addressing its presence in your life? That doesn't imply that the world we live in is good, does it?

I do not know what to believe, but I do know that whatever belief comes home to roost must pay rent. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that so many thoughts take up residence in my head without my say-so, but I'm unwilling to take action given how similar it feels to the way creative people create masterpieces: by being a little bit off and a little bit in their own world. Or is that one of my false memories? Equally as confounding, do other people experience this? The brutal isolation of individuality makes it almost impossible to know. It's a situation my brain wants to solve coldly and rationally, but the nature of the problem does not lend itself to objective study at all. When I come up for air I'm fatigued and full of ennui for a world that does not have to ask permission.

Of course, that leaves out my own agency entirely. In this scenario it sounds as if I'm a bystander and a puppet to this mysterious force. That's not the case. Sometimes I'm aware—painfully so—that the words coming out of my mouth make no sense. Instead of cutting off the stream, I consciously allow the flow to continue to see where it takes me. My curiosity always trumps my social tact (which may or may not exist at all). And even if I do cut myself off or alter my own behavior I am left haltingly devoid of accurate alternatives. I simply freeze.

Have you ever been frozen? Not "I can't dance, so I'll stand here," frozen. But frozen for words, actions, thoughts? Petrified that the next words or movements you make won't be yours? You know if you have.