The Hardest Year of My Life

WordPress sent me a year in review infographic for this blog (linked below), and it got me reflecting on the year.  There was more on my mind than I suspected.

We’re living in a beautiful place just like we dreamed.  I’m working from home and travelling, which has always been a goal.  We’ve got family and friends close.  I launched Praxis and have never been more thrilled with the work I’m doing.  Yet I can unreservedly say 2013 was the hardest year of my life.

The year began with a horrible flu and cold that took the whole family out of commission for a ridiculous amount of time and put a damper on the holidays back in Michigan.  I knew even then, and told my wife Heather more than once, that this would be a hard yet amazing year.  I was ready to take it on, though I had no idea at the time what that meant.

I left a job that I absolutely loved to go after my entrepreneurial dream, based almost entirely on a single walk on the beach.  I know, cliche.  The photo on the masthead of this blog was taken the very day the inspiration struck.  It was early in 2013, and I was restless for no known reason.  I went to Isle of Palms to walk and think.  The word “Praxis” popped into my head, and it was like the floodgates opened and the entire program was born in my mind.  I raced back to my car, drove to my laptop to get it all down, and immediately began building.

Shortly before that beach walk, I had committed to myself to start blogging every single day, seven days a week.  I was in a creative drought.  I knew I had to force myself to create something, and if I didn’t know what, blogging would do.  I did it for a full six months.  It was incredibly challenging at times, but also very freeing and very rewarding.  It helped me carve out the space I needed to think outside the milieu I was in.  I can’t give any concrete causality, but I can confidently say that Praxis never would have been launched had I not been changed by the process of daily blogging.  Creating begets creating.

Travel and trying to start a business while putting my heart and soul into another job I was passionate about and my family started to take a toll midway through the year, but all seemed largely to be humming along.  I was on my way home from a trip to New York when I finalized arrangements to go full time with the Praxis launch.  I was ecstatic, and all my flights were (unusually) on time, so I even got home to put the kids to bed.  Then it came.  A text I’ll never forget.  I was sitting on my son’s bed and we read it together.  My 4 year old nephew Ryland fell in the pool and was in the ER in critical condition.

The next several days, then weeks, were a blur.  We rallied together as a family, but despite everything all of us could do, my sister’s beautiful little boy passed away.  The day of the funeral, Heather had to leave early to fly to Michigan due to unexpected news that her father was in Hospice.  He had been declared cancer free on Christmas day 2012.  In the spring, it came back, but he was fighting it and he was young and healthy.  Things turned quickly, and before we had a moment to process the loss of Ryland, we were packing the kids in the car to head up to Michigan for their grandfather’s funeral.

In between time putting pieces together with family, I spent the fall speaking to students about Praxis.  Giving inspirational talks on innovation and entrepreneurship was not easy while dealing with the stunning loss of two close family members.  What should have been the most exciting fall of my life was the saddest, and I had to push myself just to keep at it.

It’s been a bit more than three months since the death of my nephew Ryland and my father in law Mike.  So much has happened, and so much good, but we’re still trying to process it.  Parenting is hard enough as it is, but it’s been especially challenging trying to help a brooding 8 year old, a quietly perceptive 4 year old, and a loquacious 2 year old understand and deal with death.  They randomly recall memories that make holding back tears impossible.  I’m thankful for that.

I did not plan on writing any kind of year-end reflection, and I have not been doing daily blogging here since I launched Praxis, but this cool little blog year in review stirred up a lot.  I was especially moved to see that the most popular post on the site by a mile was an interview with my sister in the summer, which was reposted by several people while Ryland was in the hospital and after he moved on from this life.  I’m glad to have been able to lend something to the literally thousands of people who took compassion on her family and wanted to know more.

Considering the year and imagining 2014 leaves me speechless.  (If you know me, you know that’s a rarity).  I can’t say I’m full of a lot of joy, or anger, or even sadness.  I’m waiting for the inertia of life to slow down again so I can get back in the driver’s seat…or at least the useful illusion of being there.

I will say this: never have I had such a deep appreciation for the kindness of strangers than in 2013.  Friends and family have been amazing, but that’s not a surprise to me.  Scores of random people and internet acquaintances have truly and unexpectedly made the joys so much greater, and the grief so much less lonely.  Thank you.

Below is what WordPress sent me to summarize this year of blogging.  Thanks for being a part of it.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 21,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 8 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Everything is Modular…Is Governance Next?

Interchangeable parts revolutionized manufacturing—and all aspects of life—at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It’s in some way analogous to how the digitization of information is changing life today. The difference is that now you get the best of both worlds: You can keep the differentiation and individualization while also getting the standardization. It’s a mash-up world; it’s weird, and it’s beautiful. We can most easily see the impact in entertainment, but the implications reach far deeper, opening new possibilities for commerce and governance.

To my kids, this is all second nature. My son thinks modularly, and sees the world as a series of modules. He’s grown up with platforms like the iPad that are populated with modules called apps, which you can mix and match any way you like. He likes Minecraft, Legos, and Star Wars. There are Lego mods for Minecraft, and Minecraft sets for Lego. There are Lego Star Wars products and shows. There are YouTube video mashups of all these things. Some of the shows he likes combine medieval adventure tales with high technology, or Greek myths with cartoon slapstick and pop-culture references. Nyan Cat and Batman fighting an ancient pharaoh with the Ring of Power? Sure, why not?

When I was a kid, things were far more cemented to their platforms. I liked Top Gun, Star Wars, baseball, Legos, and a great many other things. With the exception of constant attempts to make Star Wars characters with my Legos, the idea of crossing these forms of play never entered my mind. A Lego TV show would’ve seemed weird and never occurred to me.

It’s possible I’m only noticing a difference between myself and my kids, and there’s not much more to it. But it seems likely something more fundamental is going on.

Information is freely available in a wide open, wild market, and it’s beautiful. There are no Star Chambers to give imprimatur to what should and should not be considered official or good ideas. There aren’t publishing companies or government agencies powerful enough to dictate content or the media upon which it travels. All information is on an equal playing field. You referenced 20 great scholars in the footnotes and spent a lifetime completing this great work? Good for you. But I might just find a blog post written in 20 minutes or a TED talk that’s more valuable. Sorry.

This democratization puts Rebecca Black and Maria Callas in the same arena. The whole world has equal access to each (unless, as is often the sad case, one of them resists and tries to keep their work hidden from the world, thinking it will make them more valuable). My kids wouldn’t think anything was weird about a dub-step remix of Epic Beard Man singing Pavarotti. Everything, every great work and idea, from all of history and every genre, is available to everyone with an Internet connection.

A lot of the kings of the old guard lament this change and consider it vulgar. That’s what people thought about Shakespeare and Dickens and the Impressionists, too. Get over it. Content is king. If you want to be appreciated, create great content, and make sure not to hide it from a world that just might autotune or photobomb it.

It’s exciting to think how culture will evolve and find new ways to create out of this informational abundance. Right now, it kind of feels like the wild frontier, where this new ability has us exploring every crazy mash-up we can, just to prove it’s possible and break down old categories and constructs. It’s fun and it’s just the beginning. Kids who grew up without the old categories won’t feel the need to destroy them. They’ll be able to spend their energy creating new forms, not only being conscious iconoclasts.

What other areas of life, besides just culture (is there a difference now between “high” and “low” culture?) will this modular outlook affect? Seeing everything as a module that can be moved from one platform to another, layered or nested with any other module, has got to bring about some innovations we can’t even yet imagine in every institution and aspect of life.

Already people expect to be able to customize their lives in ways they never did before, and as a result, they want options in the services they purchase, many of which were once the sole domain of top-down governments. Ideas like community and patriotism used to be the foundation on which states could maintain their power, even when they delivered an inferior product. Digitization has revolutionized the way people view these concepts. They are more socially connected than ever, but it has little to do with arbitrary lines on a map or bureaucratic jurisdictions.

The overlapping networks of modules have created new communities, new loyalties, and new citizens who are citizens by choice. If your smartphone is a platform used to house modular forms of entertainment and commerce, why not also governance? Forget the government bus system and download the Uber app. Who needs the public school when you have Khan Academy? Why can’t services like getting a cat out of a tree, or defusing a domestic disturbance also be offered in a diverse array of modules, instead of by one clunky agency?

My kids’ video games are just the beginning. I’ve got my popcorn and I’m going to enjoy watching it happen—or at least follow the hashtag on Twitter.

Originally published in The Freeman

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