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Finding your own Flask of Mana

Sunny day in Florida

Recuperating mental energy is critical. For me it is especially prominent working in the IT field where we almost exclusively work with imaginary things. Imaginary things that do mostly yield real world effects, but those effects are disconnected from the work we actually do.

We do not hit nails, paint walls or operate heavy machinery. We think about things. We imagine. We hope things work.

We expend mental efforts from our souls to affect bits to travel in an orderly fashion or disrupt them from progressing further. You cannot touch pixels nor visually appreciate the bits you have prevented from damaging the imaginary database of other bits.

We must recharge and recuperate that spent effort. Rest and recreation are key.

For me the things that most recharge my soul are photography, writing, meaningful one-to-one discussions, and giving thanks.

Photography

Photography makes me slow down, take in the scenery, focus on the details that we walk past every single day: the interesting pattern of the cobbled street below our feet, the play of light and shadow through the office window, the red ladybug giving contrast on the green leaf. Beautiful things all round, yet mostly overlooked due to always being in a hurry to go from A to B. Photography gives me permission to slow down.

I require permission to slow down, otherwise I must be effective, must deliver, must progress, must strive for better.

Photography for me is not just snapping pictures. It is the constant practice of seeing light. Seeing an interesting expression on someone's face; a quirky gesture or pose. In addition to taking the photo, I love manipulating and editing the photos I've taken to accomplish the vision I had of the light. I am not a photo journalist, so a 1:1 relation with reality is not what I am looking for. I want to feel something with my photos.

Sunny day in Florida

The above picture is one of the first I have scanned from a trip two and a half years ago down the coast of Florida and the Keys. Travel by itself can often be quite stressful and draining, but if I have the opportunity to wander around slowly with my camera, I will gain a small bit of mana with each click of the shutter.

Writing

Writing helps me make sense of things. As I start writing things down, my mind starts to rush forward and make interesting connections between the things I am juggling in my head. There are three types of writing I do: deliberate writing on a specific subject, train of thought blog posts or opinion pieces that help me clarify my head, and what's called a brain dump.

I have a history of wanting to express myself in writing. It began when I was in my early teens and clearly above the required curriculum in English and thus bored and not of help in class. I made a deal with my English teacher then as well as in high school that I could just write three to five essays on subjects they would provide me and take part in the final exam to verify that I handled all the grammar they went through as well.

I did not stick to five and usually overloaded the teacher with six or more essays. I had strong opinions and an above average vocabulary for my age. Of course there were some spelling errors, but other than that the English classes flew by, but the creative outlet was invaluable for the young writer in me.

The writing took off and I began to experiment with creative expression on my free time. I wrote poems inspired by the lyrics of the music I was listening to. Even though they are quite cringe worthy in overall theme and structure, there are still spots of good potential as I read them today.

As time moved on and I began my journey further into the professional life of DevOps before it was cool, I started blogging about my experiences and difficulties. This was more the train of thought writing, as it effectively worked as a therapy session with the imaginary readership. I would describe my problem, and as I had to objectively describe the situation, how I understood it, what I had attempted and so forth, more often than not, there would be a moment of clarity of what I had missed and would be able to solve it.

These blog writings also were helpful when I was later discussing difficult problems with more junior co-workers as I could easily refer back to my own thought processes going through similar issues.

The act of just writing out my thoughts into a blog helped me be a better problem solver.

During my years, I have had an on-off relationship with writing. Sometimes, like three years ago, I have a passionate affair with my muse and can produce lots of good content from the past few years. But then sometimes I am too busy doing, that I forget to think about things. Things start to build up until I get this overwhelming urge to just write. The first thing I need to usually do is to sort out all the subjects I want to have a say in. Then of course I need to struggle with the eternal, internal critic who is the ghost of anonymous voices past. I cannot convince the critic that what I have to say is worthy of being written, so what usually happens is that the urge to write has to overcome the internal voice.

I came across the idea of doing a brain dump from an article reviewing the book Getting Things Done. The core tenet is that trying to keep track of too many on-going, pending, and incoming tasks in your head is extremely draining mentally and it will exhaust your energy faster throughout the day very sneakily. So the brain dump aims to write down all the things that are on your table: ask parents about holiday plans, confirm meeting with Juho, reply to emails from Laura and Matti, remember to register for event, pay the overdue bill, draft a new proposal for ... and so on.

Write them all down. Each item on a single line, whether with pen and paper or with a digital editor it doesn't matter. After you have finished dumping all possible late, pending and future tasks that you need to do something about, go through the list and after each item mark either act NOW or act AT DATE (and choose an actual date) or dismiss.

It is an incredibly energizing feeling when you get all of that mental load from your head onto a written list. It frees up so much space that you can actually breathe free for the first time in ages – or since the last brain dump if you are doing this regularly. Also writing the tasks down will let you see all the small things that are just taking up space and causing itsy-bitsy pieces of stress. But small things cumulate and become bigger things.

For example, having thought of contacting a former colleague and then putting it off for days, weeks and months just because right now I am not in the perfect state of mind to craft a beautifully elegant first message, I realized upon my first brain dump that I could just seen "Hey" or "Sup?". It sufficed and I had one item ticked off from my list and I could move on to others.

It was also very surprising to me how many items I could summarily dismiss from the list. Things that I had kept in my head as "it'd be nice to give some input on this thing" and then figure out that I had nothing to add, but that idea had taken up precious mental resources as I had to remind myself to get round to to that one email.

Finding meaningful connections

This summer was a revelation to me that affected both my professional and personal life. For the past twenty or so years I have been socially fairly assertive, sometimes dominating in groups, and overall have thought of myself as an extroverted person.

As all kids of the internet early days, I also have done dozens upon dozens of personality, vocational, and emotional tests; this was pre-Facebook and "What color are you". Most of the time if I got a result that implied I was an introvert, I simply dismissed it and redid the test with more focus on things that would affect the intro-extro spectrum of the result. In my eyes introverts were the quiet people that were trodden upon. I had been a person who had been trodden upon and I wouldn't be that person any more. Mind you, this was not a conscious choice, I can see this now with hindsight.

But this summer my world shifted. I listened to Susan Cain's book Quiet: The power of introverts. I have wholeheartedly thanked my good fellow, Timo, who gave this as a recommendation when I had received May's monthly credits. Even though I thought I understood how introverts and extroverts work, I dived into the book because I trust Timo's opinion highly enough to discard personal prejudice.

Boy was I wrong about my assumed level of knowledge. I got schooled. But more than that, I have rarely had such a powerful feeling of things just beginning to click into place as I continued through the book. It explained so many small things that I had taken as defects of my character and shined a new light on them - they were not defects but common features in introverts.

The biggest things that I got from the book was some clear things to find in my past: how times alone or meaningful one-on-one discussions had been instances of great emotional well-being. The sweetest memories I have are of mist-filled, warm summer nights spent together with a friend exchanging the hurts, sorrows, ideas, solutions, and wild ideas as the sun briefly takes a dip under the horizon. Those unhurried midsummer nights are a beacon of warm light in my head, only now I have a better understanding of how very important they were as I feel their lack in my life.

With the discovery of these two main sources of recharge, I can deliberately seek these out instead of just haphazardly stumbling upon things that give me an extra boost of mental energy.

Gratitude and giving thanks

Due to the culture I have lived in all my life, things like gratitude and giving thanks are categorize more as new wave healing than day to day wellbeing. In the Finnish sombre life earnestly thanking someone with more than a single word is usually received with somewhat of a conflated reaction of embarrassment and suspicion.

When I moved away from Finland for a few years, I had the opportunity to contrast my defaults, assumptions, and habits against co-workers from vastly different cultures. This liberated me to assess unspoken rules and unconscious behavioral norms to make more deliberate thought out actions.

One of the key things I learned from a wealth of time spent on London Real material, was that gratitude is an extremely powerful tool in being more balanced mentally and more positive.

As a Finn whose heritage's version of positive is "it could always get worse, so quit complaining", the act of striving to be more positive was a difficult task.

But I gave it a shot. I have written my 5 Minute Journal; I have written a gratitude journal. I did see a small difference in how positive my outlook was, but it wasn't effective enough for me. Since then I have noticed that what works best for me is to take the time to stop and just thank someone for something specific.

Especially Finns are usually semi rejective of this. Well not rejective, but deflective. I usually have to reinforce the validity of my appreciation at least once over the recipient's downplaying of their part or the significance of their effort.

This is one of my favorite things to do to regain an instant boost of positive energy, since both I, as the giver, and the receiver get a hit of feel-good hormones from this exchange.

So, in this vein, I would like to take this moment to stop and ask everyone to pay attention as I give these few special individuals thanks.

Juho Vesanen, I appreciate how two fallen trees in a forest can lean on each other and form a beautiful wooden bridge over the mossy ground. Thank you for your continued support.

Matti Aronen, I appreciate how raw and honest you have been with me in things of utmost personal impact during this year. Thank you for opening your heart to me and allowing me to share your burdens as it has brought us closer.

Laura Kankaala, I appreciate your honest feedback and support, your will to help and open arms. Thank you for sharing my burdens and lighting up the entire office with your sweet laughter and smile.

Footnote

These are my tools. My thoughts. My roads to recuperation.

Whenever I publish something online, I wish that I can reach at least one person who might find solace, help, or just comfort in the knowledge that others are struggling with these issues.

Thank you for reading.

JW / Helsinki, 2018-09-14 

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