all posts tagged 'anxiety'

The Job Hunt Chronicles: Month 1: Discovering My Path

originally shared here on

An AI-generated image showing some business guy standing at a crossroads, looking at a wide array of paths and opportunities floating in the sky.

I was laid off from my job on January 2. It did come as a bit of a shock, and for the first time in my life, I've been really struggling to figure out who I am and what I'm looking for.

As a way to keep pushing myself forward and holding myself accountable, I'm going to start publicly documenting this process as a way to process my thoughts out loud, keep my friends and network aware of my activities, and start some conversations that'll help me take my next step forward.

"What are you looking for?"

If I could summarize the past month in a single question, that would be it.

In the 58 conversations I've had in the past month with friends, recruiters, industry peers, networking events, partners, and job interviewers, I've been asked that question literally every single time.

And 58 times later, I think I'm starting to get closer to an answer.

Here's what I'm looking for:

  1. A team of kind, smart, and hard-working people
  2. A mission that the team rallies around which helps improve as many lives as possible
  3. A leadership role to help drive an engineering team towards fulfilling that mission
  4. Doing all of this while continuing to experiment with LLMs and other AI technologies
  5. Connecting with as many people as possible to explore the impact of AI on who we are as humans
  6. Something that includes medical benefits to support my family

It doesn't matter much to me what the title is. Some roles I've applied and begun interviewing for include "Director of Engineering," "Software Architect," "AI/ML Lead," and "Founding Engineer".

If you know of any opportunities that you think would fit a nerdy kid who has a big heart and enjoys exploring practical applications of artificial intelligence, please send them my way!

Activities I've done

Here's a list of the activities I've pursued between January 2 (the day I got laid off) and February 3 (today):

  • Friends: 11
  • Recruiters: 11
  • Industry Peers: 19
  • Networking Events: 6
  • Interviews: 8
  • Partner Chats: 3
  • Total: 58

Here are my loose definitions for these categories:

  • Friends: People I have a deeper relationship with and whose primary interest isn't necessarily in discussing the job search.
  • Recruiters: People who have a vested interest in pairing me up with a job. These could become friends at some point, but my primary purpose in engaging with them was to talk shop.
  • Industry Peers: People who work in the industry and want to make a connection to expand each other's networks. Again, these folks could become friends at some point.
  • Networking Events: Events geared towards either making connections or learning something new with a bunch of other people.
  • Interviews: Discussions with people who have a possible role that I can fill.
  • Partner Chats: I do still have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, so these are discussions with those I am working on building a business with.

As you can see so far, most of my time has been with folks in the industry, making connections, trying to explore what opportunties are out there.

I'm hoping that I start to see more growth in the "interviews" column by this time next month. 😅

Things I've learned

Alright, so back in the day, I used to do these blog posts where I'd accumulate a bunch of random thoughts over a period of time and then list them out in bullets. I'm gonna do something similar here, so here are some things I've learned in the past month:

👨‍🎨 Personal growth insights

Safe spaces rule.

Every classroom in my daughter's school has had a "safe space", an area of the room that kids can go to when they're overwhelmed or stressed out. It gives them a place to calm down and process their emotions.

My daughter recreated one in her room. Beneath her lofted bed, she's created this fortress of solitude. It consists of a beanbag chair, a little lamp, some stuffed animals, a sound machine, books, crafts, and affirmations scotch taped to blanket walls.

When I took my first virtual therapy call, I did it from that safe space.

Our house isn't big enough for me to build a room with one, but once I get employment again, I'll begin finding a way to add one on. It's important to have a space you can retreat to where you feel safe.

Anxiety is an asset.

There's a reason we feel anxiety: it helps us stay safe from threats.

But when you're abundantly safe in nearly every sense of the word, anxiety itself becomes a threat.

I've been dealing with runaway anxiety issues for decades now, which is a big part of the reason I don't feel comfortable spinning up my own business at the moment. The last time I did that ended with a similar series of rolling anxiety attacks.

But as a professional software architect, anxiety is actually pretty useful. Being able to envision possible threats against the system allows you to create mitigations that will keep it safe and efficient.

Of course, you gotta be careful to not let your applied anxiety run away from you. Easier said than done.

"It'll all work out. Even if it doesn't, it all works out."

My lifelong pal Cody's mom is a paragon of confidence and chillness.

I went for a walk with Cody a week into being laid off, and we got to talking about her parents.

She shared that her mom often says that quote, which is what gives her that confidence.

I need more of that in my life.

Gravity Falls is an amazing television show.

You all should look it up on Disney+ and burn through it in a weekend.

It's one of those shows that slowly builds to a gigantic payoff at the end.

The finale hit me with all the feelings.

Plus, it's a good show to bond over with your seven year old daughter.

Journaling really helps with perspective.

I've journaled every day since getting laid off. Reading back through them, I'm seeing patterns into what activities contribute to good days versus bad days.

Good days include some sort of vigorous workout, a conversation or two with a good pal, and tons of encouraging self talk.

Bad days include skipping the workout and sitting by yourself with your horrible, negative self talk.

Journaling is proof that life still goes on even if I don't have a job.

It's also proof that I'm at least taking some advantage of not having the responsibility of a job. (Not nearly enough, though.)

What helps my depression is a clear vision.

I've realized this month that it's when I've taken the path of least resistance when I've ended up the most miserable.

When I was a senior in high school and needed to decide what to do with my life, I picked a school (the U of M) and a degree (computer engineering) that were convenient because of proximity and my interest in computers.

My first semester of college was a complete shock.

For the first time in my academic career, I hated school.

The classes absolutely drained me. My "intensive precalculus" class sounded about as fun as you'd imagine. I mean, yeah, there are some people out there who enjoy math, but it's a rare breed who would say that they derive pleasure from "intense math."

My calculus-based physics class was a kick in the teeth. I've always been told I'm smart, but memorizing and deploying specific formulas on demand was not my strong suit. It made me feel dumb.

It felt like I was there because I had to be there, not because I wanted to be there.

And how ludicrous is that? I spent $12,000 per semester out of some perceived obligation to do so.

When I failed miserably out of engineering school, I sat down in Coffman Memorial Union and scrolled through the class directory, looking for something that looked interesting to me.

I ended up landing on a class called Broadcast Television Production, which gave me so much energy.

It required me to become a journalism major, so I switched over to that.

That path led me to an internship at WCCO, which was one of the most enjoyable professional experiences in my life. I mean, I got to hang out with hard working creatives that perfectly blended their surly dispositions with a passion for making engaging videos.

Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, I feel like I no longer am obliged to follow any specific path. The only thing holding me in place is myself.

For the past six months, I've felt like I've been stuck in this fog of uncertainty and depression. I've felt useless, a drain on myself and those around me.

This fog has led me down some dark paths where I've said some really nasty things to myself, kicking myself for being a loser, a failure, an idiot.

But really, my problem was that I just lost sight of who I am and what I want to be.

So while I'm still squinting to see my way through the fog, I'm using some of my other senses instead.

I'm using my ears to listen to my friends and network who are serving as voices to pull me out.

I'm using my nose to sniff out opportunities and make new friends.

And perhaps the most important of all: I'm using my heart to decide what will make me feel fulfilled and useful.

All of that stuff is helping me form the vision for what the next few years of my life looks like.

The two resources I have to offer those who may be in a similar situation would be my pal Kurt Schmidt who is currently in the final stages of a book that helps you formulate your 10 year vision, and my idol Arnold Schwarzenegger's new book Be Useful.

I cannot recommend the audiobook version of his book enough. Hearing Arnold say things like "rest is for babies, and relaxation is for retired people" hits so much better with his accent.

The messages shared in children's programming are important to hear as adults too.

I've been hanging with my kids a lot this month, and my son is super into Paw Patrol and Blue's Clues.

In the "Big City Adventure" musical movie, you follow Josh (yeah, there's been several new "Steve" characters since the show debuted in my childhood) as he tries to achieve his dream of performing on Broadway.

Are the songs simple and annoyingly catchy? Definitely. But you know what? Sometimes, it's important for us, as adults, to believe that "happiness is magic" and "you can do anything that you wanna do."

Paw Patrol is another one of those shows where, as an adult, it's easy to complain about their reductive storylines and fantastical premises.

But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of discussing the Green Ranger's transformation into the White Ranger on the bus as a first grader.

These stories serve as lessons for teamwork, cooperation, sharing, and the importance of spreading joy and helping those in need.

These are traits that come easier to some than others, but they're crucial if we want to have a thriving society that lifts all of us up as humans.

Plus, sometimes, it's just fun to get invested in silly, simple characters and storylines.

So while I'm still gonna watch RuPaul's Drag Race or FUBAR when the kids go to bed, don't sleep on the shows that your kids are into. If you can drop your "I'm too good for this" mentality, you might just remember how simple life can be if you reduce it to its basic concepts.

How does one build confidence without cultivating hubris?

Is it just staying humble?

Asking for a friend.

...okay, I'm asking for myself.

Brain pathways are forged through the tall grass.

My therapist gave me this analogy as a way to help me visualize how to deal with changing your perspectives.

When a pathway is stomped through the tall grass, it's easy to walk down it.

But sometimes, those pathways no longer serve us. We still choose to walk down them, though, because it's easy.

If you want to forge newer and more helpful pathways, you gotta do the hard work of stamping out new pathways.

Eventually, if you keep doing the work, you'll discover that the old pathways become overgrown, and the one you stamped out for yourself is now the easy path.

I think this metaphor works for so many areas of our lives, like getting into shape or improving our own self talk.

If I'm so smart, why can't I beat depression?

I wrote that question in my journal, and I think it's because depression might not be something you beat. It's something you experience when you have achieved so much and aren't confident in what's next.

You "beat" depression by choosing to take a step towards your vision every single day.

You "beat" depression by spending less time with your brain and more time with your heart.

You "beat" depression by engaging in creative pursuits that make you happy. Just you. Nobody else.

👨‍💼 Professional insights

AI is so much fun to experiment with!

One of the goals I set for myself this winter was to clean out the crawlspace we have under our steps.

As any homeowner knows, it's easy to accumulate stuff over the years. The item that left the biggest footprint? Several totes filled with baby clothes.

It doesn't seem like we're on the path toward baby number 3 at all, so we figured it was a good opportunity to purge it all.

I ended up donating 12 boxes of clothes.

While I carefully placed each item into one of those boxes, I dutifully tallied each one so I could calculate the fair market value in order to write the donation off on my taxes.

Now, this is something I've done for years. I find some spreadsheet on the internet that helps calculate it, then I manually add the items to the sheet to end up with the value.

This time, I decided to try to use AI to help me figure this out.

I live streamed the whole process, which you can check out here.

I learned two things during this experiment: first, OCR tools aren't that great at reading tally marks (but honestly, they did better than I expected). Second, while we're still a fair ways away from being able to hand off tasks like these to AI bots, it's impressive how far GPT-4 was able to get from my basic prompting.

Can AI really take away the "soul sucking" parts of our jobs?

There are a lot of mechanical tasks that our brains are wired to be good at: counting, pattern recognition, and so forth.

These tasks are often the crappiest parts of our jobs, right? It's the monotonous, soul-sucking parts of our work. And we even call it soul sucking because it often feels like stuff that gets in the way from pursuing better, more fulfilling things.

So what does that leave us with? If the soul sucking parts of our jobs are automated away, what does it mean then for us to be human?

Maybe the future here isn't that AI will kill us all. Maybe it will force us, for the first time in the existence of our species, to truly deal with what it means to value a human life.

It will free us up to pursue creative pursuits. To keep digging deeper on our humanity. To ask new questions about what that actually means, and then allow us to pursue it together with machines helping us do some of that hard work for us.

Maybe something I can look into is figuring out how to use AI to help us understand our brains better. Like, can AI help us figure out the chemical imbalances that lead to severe depression? And if it can, can it help us synthesize treatments to keep our brains in perfect balance all the time? And if it can, does that prevent us from being human, or does it make us more human?

"Happiness is to write code that does great things for other people."

Before getting laid off, I bought tickets to Code Freeze at the University of Minnesota. The annual event focused this year on artificial intelligence, so it would've been foolish not to go.

I am so glad I did.

The event kicked off with a keynote from Andreas Sjöström, a long time industry leader, who shared a story of a paper he wrote when he was young.

His teacher asked him to define happiness, and he came up with "happiness is to write code that does great things for other people."

Really, when he said that, it felt like someone suddenly turned the focus knob from "blurry" to "sharp."

Writing software is challenging work filled with constant struggle, but once you get things working right, it's magical.

We, as engineers, often lose sight of that magic because we get so invested in discovering the secrets to the magic.

Sometimes, it's nice to just sit back and appreciate the opportunity and privilege we have to deliver technology that brings not only joy to others, but empowers them to go forth and do great things.

"An architect's crystal ball is being connected to others."

The other networking event I attended that brought so much joy is the AppliedAI meetup.

This month's meeting featured Jim Wilt, a distinguished software architect, as he discussed AI's role in an organization's architecture strategy.

The thing that struck me at this particular event was how dang smart everyone there was. All forms of intelligence were explored. Some folks were really keyed into the emotional side of intelligence, while others were approaching things from an analytical lens.

All of us were working together to gain some insights into how we can better use these amazing tools we've been given.

That spirit was wrapped up in a story Jim was saying about the importance of collaboration.

In isolation, you're only as smart as yourself. When connected to others, you are able to make deeper and more accurate insights into what might work for your own situation or problem.

The key takeaway? "An architect's crystal ball is being connected to others."

If we're going to answer the tough ethical and societal problems that surround these new AI tools, the only way we'll figure it out is together.

What's next for me

Certainly, my next month will involve more meetings, more interviews, and more digging into this vision.

I commit that by this time next month, I'll be back with a more clear vision of what I want my life to be. That way, when one of you wonderful people asks me "what are you looking for," I can provide a hyper-focused answer.

As always, a huge thanks to those who have reached out and offered their support. Like I said above, being connected to others is really what makes all the difference.

If you would like to help, here's how:

  1. If you know of a full time (32-40 hr/week) job opportunity where I can help architect a complex software system, explore how AI can fit into an organization, or lead a team of nerds towards building an awesome product, please send it my way.
  2. If you have insights or articles that speak to how AI might force us to define our humanity, please send those my way.

Until next month, stay in touch!

Another year another...

🔗 a linked post to » — originally shared here on

Ever since I entered into adulthood, I think that I’ve pretty much played by the rules. I sometimes try to present myself as anti-authoritarian, but I’ve come to understand that underneath that, I am someone who is very afraid of doing the wrong thing, everyone getting mad, and abandoning me.

The learning, or unlearning, or re-learning, of this year has been that I can make my own rules. And, inside that, I can also break my own rules. I make the rules, I can remake the rules, and I can do it as many times as I like. How liberating, am I right?

I’m finally checking out my pal Micah’s 2023 mix, and reading this explanation of his rules is super relatable.

I’ve always presented myself the complete opposite, though: extremely compliant and eager to follow the rules.

I’ve been trying to unlearn these habits over the past few years. It’s not so much a middle finger to the system; rather, it’s my way of posturing to others that I am willing to cooperate with you, but I’m not going to partake in unnecessary ceremonies anymore.

The spirit of this mix embodies a delightful way of rebelling against our own anxieties. And the fact that it is just barely askew from the rules makes it that much more lovely.

Continue to the full article

Is materialism really such a bad thing?

🔗 a linked post to » — originally shared here on

The French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously said that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience”. In other words, our minds and souls are having a material experience here on Earth. You would imagine that a healthy society would therefore cherish both sides of this duality - the non-physical and the physical. The strange thing about our modern culture though is that we have rejected almost all concept of spirituality and, according to Watts, we have also forgotten the value of the material world, leaving us with nothing that we truly value.

I just finished bringing 12 full boxes of baby clothes outside for donation.

Twelve boxes of mostly mediocre fabrics stitched together to be worn, what, ten times at the most? And in some cases, never worn at all.

Twelve boxes that contained thousands of dollars worth of labor to purchase them initially, not to mention the thousands of hours of labor to stitch them together in the first place.

And while placing every single item inside those twelve boxes, I hardly felt nostalgic or wasted any time lamenting the loss of anything I was discarding.

I kept thinking of a quote that says, “Look around you. All that stuff used to be money. All that money used to be time.”

And it made me think about my anxiety surrounding my job search. Needing to get myself back into the work force, just so I can keep consuming more stuff?

I think a lot of my anxiety stems from moments where I’m unable to make sense of a given situation (or, at the very least, make peace with it).

This is the system we’re in. There’s only so much I can change about it.

My kids got so much stuff for Christmas this year. Thousands of dollars of toys, books, clothes, games.

And yet, they don’t really care about any of it.

Their Barbie dream house? It’s in shambles, with stickers peeling off the walls and various marker doodles covering the floors.

Their PAW Patrol Lookout? Shoved in the corner along with two complete sets of each of the 7 (wait, 8? wait, no, they added a few more?) characters with vehicles in various states of destruction.

The best I can hope for is that they get a few hours of enjoyment from these toys.

Because someday soon, probably within the next two years, I’ll have to grab twelve more cardboard boxes out of the garage and start placing all of those toys into them.

And there is very little about this situation that makes sense to me.

Continue to the full article

How Anxiety Became Content

🔗 a linked post to » — originally shared here on

Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California and a mother to a high schooler, told me she has come to think that, for many young people, claiming an anxiety crisis or post-traumatic stress disorder has become like a status symbol. “I worry that for some people, it’s become an identity marker that makes people feel special and unique,” Saxbe said. “That’s a big problem because this modern idea that anxiety is an identity gives people a fixed mindset, telling them this is who they are and will be in the future.” On the contrary, she said, therapy works best when patients come into sessions believing that they can get better. That means believing that anxiety is treatable, modifiable, and malleable—all the things a fixed identity is not.

It’s hard enough to come to the realization that you are not your anxiety or depression. Wearing it on your shirt and proudly broadcasting it to everyone doesn’t do you any favors.

Saxbe said the best thing we can do for ourselves when we’re anxious or depressed is to fight our instinct to avoid and ruminate, rather than get sucked into algorithmic wormholes of avoidance and rumination. The best thing one can do when they’re depressed is to reject the instinct to stay in bed basking in the glow of a phone, and to instead step outside, engage with a friend, or do something else that provides more opportunities for validation and reward. “I would tell people to do what’s uncomfortable, to run toward danger,” Saxbe said. “You are not your anxiety. You’re so much more.”

As I mentioned in a link from earlier today, I’ve been dealing with a rolling anxiety attack that’s lasted the better part of a full week.

I spent an afternoon in the ER because I was actually seeing changes on my Apple Watch’s ECG report when stressful thoughts would cross my mind. I could feel this deep pain in my chest, and as I write this down, I am still feeling that pain.

These pains are part of the anxiety attacks I’ve dealt with off and on for at least a decade, but unlike the other attacks, the problem with this one is that I couldn’t put my finger on why it was happening.

Besides journaling late at night with a nice, chill album playing in the background, the only thing that’s helped so far is stepping outside and engaging with friends.

It’s incredible that we live in a time where we can open up about our feelings and process difficult emotions with the help of others.

As Pete Holmes says, it helps to get into the headspace of observing your thoughts. When you notice a thought that says, “I am depressed”, you can instead say, “There is depression.”

Even if you’re not struggling with your mental health right now, it’s worth checking out that Pete Holmes video so you can have another tool at your disposal in the off chance you find yourself in depressionland.

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Behind the Red Dot: Confessions of a TEDx Newbie

originally shared here on

Me on stage at TEDx St. Cloud

My TEDx talk is now live. About a month has passed since I delivered the talk and I've been trying to figure out the best way to write about my experiences leading up to the big day.

After several iterations, I decided that instead of giving a sequential order of events, I will instead rattle off a list of some lessons I learned in the hopes of both illustrating what I went through to get to the red dot and also giving future TEDx speakers some advice on what can help them get through the process themselves.

Note: There are Amazon affiliate links scattered throughout this post. 🤷

Say "yes" even when you feel like a fraud.

About a year ago, this funky tool called ChatGPT was released to the public. I was immediately captivated by it and started doing everything I could to understand its capabilities.

I also couldn't help but go down an ethics rabbit hole with questions like "how did they get the data for all of this" and "how will this be used to make people's lives worse?"

Around the same time, a friend of mine was putting together potential AMA topics for the upcoming year for Minnestar, and I suggested she put together a panel with experts talking about this very topic.

She said that was a great idea, and she put me on a panel with Damien Riehl, a TEDx speaker who has been working in the AI space as a technologist and lawyer for most of his career.

I have to admit, it was pretty intimidating to go from "a passing interest in AI ethics" to "sit on a panel as an expert," but I figured it would be a good opportunity, so I said yes.

After a really fun and fruitful conversation, I thought that would be the end of my career in AI public speaking.

Shortly after the talk, my friend (Justin Grammens) sent me a DM encouraging me to respond to the request for talk proposals for his upcoming conference about applied AI.

Once again, I found myself with an opportunity to talk about something I would hardly call myself an expert in, but after reflecting on it, I said yes. Considering my background in journalism and technology, I saw prompt engineering as an area in which I could get up to speed quickly and piece together a compelling talk.

The experience was amazing. I ended up making connections with folks all over the industry who are leveraging AI in novel ways. You could just feel the energy and excitement during the entire event.

A day or two after the conference, I had an email show up in my inbox from the organizer of TEDx St. Cloud, asking if I'd be interested in a quick phone call.

That quick phone call ended up being well over an hour where we shared our thoughts around the current state of AI. What was making people afraid? Why are so many people excited? What could "normal people" take away from a 10 minute talk about artificial intelligence?

For the third time in a year, I was presented with an opportunity to say yes.

I thought back to my first two AI talks from the year. I really enjoyed sharing the stage with an AI expert and people seemed to enjoy my opinions during that. I really enjoyed the conversations that came out of my prompt engineering talk.

Over the past couple of years, I've been learning to start having confidence in myself. If I can stand up in front of a group of AI experts and say something interesting to them about prompt engineering, I should be able to stand up in front of a group of normal people and say something interesting to them about artificial intelligence in general.

I said yes. And in retrospect, I don't regret it one bit.

I asked for a ton of help. And I got it.

My daughter holding up a sign she made to cheer me on

I mentioned my TEDx talk opportunity to a few folks in the lead up to the event, and there wasn't a single person whom I asked for help that said "no."

It's astounding how much people will help you if you let them.

As much as people want to help you, you do still need to go to them with specific asks. If you ask general questions, you'll get back general answers.

Instead, I asked a friend of mine who is an expert in branding how can I turn this talk into more talks.

I asked a friend who has spent tons of time investing in understanding the underlying AI technologies what insights he learned that would surprise normal people.

I practiced my talk with a few co-workers and asked them for ideas to improve my stage presence.

I met with the TEDx-assigned speaker coach and asked her for memorization techniques that previous successful speakers used.

People want to help. They feel honored to be part of the team, part of the mission. And it feels good to know I have a deep roster of allies who want to help see me succeed too.

Follow the TED way.

The marquee in front of the Paramount Theater

The organizers of TEDx St. Cloud strongly recommended we should read The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking shortly after we said "yes". It's written by Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, who has a delightful British sensibility to his delivery on best public speaking practices specifically as they relate to giving a TED talk.

A fellow presenter and I were chatting and he mentioned that he didn't have time to read the book, but he rather got the audiobook version.

I decided to use my early morning bike ride time to listen to the book, and for me, it was the perfect way to consume the information.

If you've watched more than a dozen TED talks, you probably could guess at the high level concepts of a quality one: don't read text from slides, maintain good eye contact with the crowd and keep them engaged, be able to distill the core ideas of your talk down to a sentence or two, and so forth.

Besides these points, the book also has some good takeaways such as considering what wardrobe you're going to wear and pick something that won't cause mic feedback or clash with the cameras.

Regardless of how you consume the book, the book is critical in helping you internalize and implement the core qualities that make up a good TED talk.

I would strongly encourage any future TED speaker to take the time to read it as well.

You'll ultimately need to deliver a speech you know isn't perfect.

I'm a recovering perfectionist. I hold myself to impossible standards and feel tremendous guilt when I don't live up to them.

As such, I tried hard during this process to let that go and be comfortable with "good enough".

What helped me the most was giving a copy of my speech to some trusted friends and asking them to pick things apart.

The vast majority offered one or two tiny semantic tweaks, but otherwise gave it a resounding two thumbs up.

If you're a recovering perfectionist like myself, you may find yourself wanting to spend your time continuously rewriting your talk instead of memorizing the talk.

Take it from me: after a certain number of iterations, the talk will be good enough. Lean on your support systems and trust them to tell you when you've hit that point.

Memorize moments, not words.

I have a recurring nightmare where I am suddenly standing backstage at my high school, and I'm compelled to walk out on stage during a theatrical performance, and the other characters all stare at me, and I have no idea what the lines are to the show.

There's probably some trauma to unpack there, but suffice it to say that I have a deep seated fear around rote memorization.

In all the talks I've given in my career, I've never tried to memorize a speech word for word. I believe it limits my ability to feel the crowd and tailor the specific wordage of a point I'd like to make on the spot.

Instead, I try to memorize moments. The process I normally follow when constructing talks looks like this:

  1. Write a thorough outline covering the main points I'd like to make.
  2. Build a slide deck to illustrate those main points.
  3. Rehearse walking through the deck over and over again until you can use the presenter view to remind yourself what point comes next.

The one hiccup with this TEDx talk is that we did not have a "presenter view" monitor in front of us while on stage. We did have a "confidence monitor" which was a mirror of the giant screen we had behind us, but there was no way to prepare for what slide was coming next.

In order to combat this, I had to actually get closer to word-for-word memorization, but instead of words, I memorized phrases.

When I was transitioning between points, I knew the exact phrases I wanted to hit, and then I remembered one or two words associated to that phrase.

As an example, one piece I continually kept missing in my rehearsals was this two-part phrase:

Each of those leaps in technology brought many changes to my life, both voluntarily and mandated by societal pressures. I mean, try being a kid in 2004 without a MySpace.

Adapting our lives to this new tech requires a bit of optimism and a ton of curiosity. None of it will work right out of the gate without us changing our behaviors and our expectations.

I'd always nail my epic MySpace joke, but then I'd forget what my next phrase was, so I memorized that the word "adapting" came after the word "MySpace."

That way, I wouldn't forget that my "MySpace" moment led into my "adapting our lives" moment.

Memorize by listening to yourself.

Much in the same way I found it was easier to consume the TED book by listening to the audiobook, I found it was easiest to practice my speech by recording myself giving it into my phone's voice memo app, and then replaying that again and again and again.

One funny part of that is that you need to get a take of you recording it without screwing up. The reason I kept missing my "Myspace"/"adapting" transition was because I recorded my talk while walking around the front of my office, and a truck nearly hit me while I was in the middle of that take.

That particular moment took place in the last 90 seconds of my talk, so I would've needed to re-record the whole thing to get a clean version of that take.

Learn from my mistake: if you're going this route, record yourself in a quiet room where you're focusing on the script and nailing it as perfectly as you can.

By the way: this was one area I was particularly proud of myself for not overcomplicating. I'm a professional podcast editor and a former podcast host. I have access to high quality production equipment, and I could've easily made a ton of work for myself to edit and produce a high quality recording that nobody would've listened to except myself.

Instead, I decided to keep it simple. More often than not, your phone is good enough.

Reciting your speech to yourself is one thing. Doing it in front of others is entirely different.

Most of my practicing of the speech took place while on a walk around the block or in front of a mirror by myself.

The first time I practiced it in front of others was when my coworkers assembled around me about two days before I gave the talk.

It's amazing how much higher the stakes are when you are forced to look at others in their eyes and try to convince them that what you are saying is worth their time (let alone inspire them to take action in some regard).

Besides my coworkers, I also performed my speech twice for my wife, twice for my fellow TEDx presenters, and once for my seven year old daughter.

If I have one regret, it was that I didn't try to practice it in front of more people. I was so damn nervous trying to stutter through my speech for all of those audiences.

And maybe it's because I deeply care about the opinions of these folks. Performing for those I love induced all those anxiety-laden parts of my brain that fill me with fear about how they'd react, how they'd perceive the talk, where they'd find holes and flaws.

As you might expect, I wasn't booed off the stage by these people. They offered one or two pieces of constructive criticism, but ended up being far more supportive than I could've anticipated.

Get over your monkey brain reactions and put yourself out there. Each attempt gives you the opportunity to polish your act.

You will swell with pride at the growth of your fellow presenters.

I only had a little interaction with my fellow presenters in the build up to the event, but even from our first group meeting, you could instantly tell two things about them: all of them are optimistic in nature, and all of them have something interesting to say.

Each of the speakers went through a journey to get their idea as polished as they possibly could. Watching them get in the red dot and deliver their talks was an unexpected celebratory moment for me.

One moment that stood out to me in particular was Kyle, a physician who was speaking about the use of artificial intelligence in ACL surgical procedures. He had a good anecdote about grabbing a beer with a professor of his, and then set up a joke like this: "What followed was... several more beers." It was a dry, glorious joke that he rehearsed several times to (what I'm assuming was) empty silence each time he gave it.

Hearing him drop that joke during the actual performance, and hearing the audience respond with boisterous laughter, was just one of many special memories I'll take away from the night.

My coat made me feel like a badass.

Me on stage wearing my badass coat

Two disparate things I took away from the TED book were:

  1. Be cognizant of what you are wearing on stage
  2. Find a way to include your family as part of your talk preparation

If I had to describe my sense of style over the past 30 years of my life in a thesis, it would be: "whatever is the cheapest thing that doesn't make me look horrible."

My wife has been instrumental in helping me evolve my wardrobe over the past decade, so it only made sense to give her the assignment of making me look good on stage.

We decided to head up to the Mall of America and walk around to figure out what would look best for me.

One of the first stores we went into was a Banana Republic. For those of you like me who are not well-informed when it comes to fashion, Banana Republic is not exactly a cheap store.

In fact, it's owned by the Gap family of stores, which serves as the most premium brand in the family (the cheapest being Old Navy, followed by Gap itself).

Clearly, this flies in the face of my central fashion thesis.

Giving this talk, though, made me reflect on that thesis. It reminded me of an episode of How I Built This with Jenn Hyman of Rent the Runway that I listened to years ago. Jenn mentioned that she was inspired by the fact that her sister dropped tons of money on a new dress rather than rewear the old one.

Her reasoning? The outfit is part of the memory. It's part of the experience. Rewearing a dress lowers the value of the memory.

I wanted to get something new that made me feel like a confident, stylish tech expert. Dressing the part would further emphasize the importance of the event and make the memory that much more impactful for me.

So I decided while we were shopping that I wasn't going to look at price tags. I told my wife to pick out whatever she thought would make me look the best.

One of the outfits she came back with was a brown suede jacket, a pair of jeans, and an orange t-shirt.

The second I put that jacket on and looked in the mirror, I felt like a million bucks.

We went to a bunch of other stores, but nothing even came close to the feeling I had when I put that jacket on.

It was the first time in my life I went up to a register in a clothing store and presented my credit card without any hesitation.

Now, it's hard to get out of the "wear a free t-shirt you got from a tech conference paired with a hoodie you got from working at a marathon and jeans you got four years ago that have the shape of your cell phone permanently burned into your left thigh" mentality, so no, I won't be retiring the jacket. It will be brought out at most important events in the near future.

But if you're going to be giving your own important speech, I highly suggest you find your own "jacket" to give you some artificial confidence.

The worst part is the hour before you go on stage.

Pulling up to the theatre and seeing "TEDx St. Cloud" proudly displayed in the marquee was exciting.

Sitting down and having lunch with the talent and crew was delightful.

Grabbing a pre-dinner beer with my family at the brewery down the road was relaxing.

Getting down to the green room and putting on that jacket for realsies? Absolutely terrifying.

Here's a graph of my heart rate during that day:

A graph of my heart rate from my iPhone

My resting heart rate is in the mid 50s (which you can see around the 11am mark as we were driving up to the event). I was roughly 2.5x that in the moments before walking on stage.

What worked for me? While in the green room, I did a combination of the following activities:

  • Positive self talk and visualization
  • Deep breathing
  • Reading messages that my friends were sending me wishing me luck and telling me I would nail it
  • Push ups
  • Crying
  • Distracting myself by talking with others around me
  • Re-running the first few moments of the talk out loud

I can't say which one of those was the most helpful, but killing time prior to being on stage was the absolute worst part.

I'm just grateful I went first.

The biggest surprise of the whole experience came while presenting.

Me presenting on stage

I'm sure you must be sick of me talking about how much I rehearsed at this point in my post.

But seriously, I must have said this talk more than a hundred times over the course of a month.

Each and every time I practiced the talk, I ended with the same feeling: discontent.

I was disappointed that I missed certain beats or that my timing was slightly inconsistent. I was frustrated that I wasn't presenting a novel enough idea around the topic. I was envisioning myself standing in that red dot and getting to the end of my talk, and looking out into a sea of politely-clapping faces, each with a "meh" reaction on their faces.

Putting myself out there and sharing what I believe to be true about technology proved to be quite a fertile field for my depression and anxiety to sow seeds of doubt.

With my heart rate peaking and my anxiety shouting into my ears, I walked out on stage and looked around the audience.

There were hundreds of people cheering, clapping, staring back at me with big smiles on their faces. They were ready to learn, be entertained, and be inspired.

And all of that fear? All of those moments of self doubt? All of that nasty stuff I was telling myself for weeks prior to that moment?

They instantly vanished.

I hadn't even said a word yet, and it felt like my shoulders lowered by a foot.

The feeling of dread was replaced with certainty that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was entirely in the moment, eager to share what I've been thinking about AI with an audience of people who were ready to hear it.

Walking off the stage was the first time I concluded my speech without disappointment. Instead, I was filled with an unexpected emotion: pride.

5 out of 5 stars would do again

Me and my family after the show

The part of my talk I'm most proud of was a moment where I asked the audience to shout out what they think would finish various phrases.

The second time I did it, I heard the audience shout out the answer I was expecting ("paint"), but a beat later, I hear my son, clear as day, yell "ice cream".

It was the perfect moment, an unexpected contribution that acts as the sprinkles on top of the whipped cream which sits atop the sundae that represents my entire TEDx experience.

There are a ton of people I insist on thanking for helping me get to the stage, so I'll do so quickly here (if I left you off this list, assume I did it with malicious intent):

  • Brian Hart for giving me the opportunity to help people feel comfortable with artificial intelligence
  • Sonja Gidlow for numerous therapy sessions and reassuring me that I'm on the right track
  • Shannon Bornholdt for always giving me the right advice and for picking out the dopest jacket on the planet
  • Joe Beard and all my Bionic Giant coworkers for giving me the space to be consumed with this talk for a few weeks
  • Wil Galvez for making the trek to St. Cloud to take epic photos of me
  • Kelly Heitz, Dana Hagemann, Tony Collen, and Sara Sargent for reviewing early drafts of my speech and providing significant feedback
  • Justin Grammens and Maria Ploessl for giving a rookie AI speaker a chance earlier this year
  • My mom and dad for decades of sitting in the front row and cheering me on
  • My siblings and their partners for having an uncanny ability to both support me unconditionally and keep my ego in check
  • and finally, those of you who shot me a note of encouragement and support throughout the last few months.

So yeah, that was my TEDx experience. I guess to wrap this all up, I want to reiterate how grateful I am to have this opportunity.

There's a good reason why people brag about being a TEDx speaker: it take a lot of hard work and vulnerability to pull off a quality speech. The entire process proved to be a unique opportunity to both help others by making them more comfortable with AI, and to help myself practice positive self talk and build my confidence.

Finally, as the kids say: thank you for coming to my TED talk.

William Shatner: “My Trip to Space Filled Me With Sadness”

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I learned later that I was not alone in this feeling. It is called the “Overview Effect” and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others.

Essentially, when someone travels to space and views Earth from orbit, a sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner. Author Frank White first coined the term in 1987: “There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.”

It can change the way we look at the planet but also other things like countries, ethnicities, religions; it can prompt an instant reevaluation of our shared harmony and a shift in focus to all the wonderful things we have in common instead of what makes us different. It reinforced tenfold my own view on the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and eventually, it returned a feeling of hope to my heart.

In this insignificance we share, we have one gift that other species perhaps do not: we are aware—not only of our insignificance, but the grandeur around us that makes us insignificant. That allows us perhaps a chance to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us. If we seize that chance.

I had a chance to grab some drinks recently with a good friend of mine who I consider to be the absolute smartest person I’ve ever met.

As is often the case, our chat devolved into a brutal critique of the current state of affairs: the real threat of nuclear war in Europe, dealing with the ramifications of climate change, the weaponization of artificial intelligence, and so forth.

As we were wrapping up our chat, I got the sense that both of us were looking to each other for a glimmer of hope. Something that would allow us to go to bed thinking, “yeah, the world sucks right now, but we’ll figure it out.”

Wiliam Shatner’s observation about our species’ ability to be aware of such things might be the thing that we could have potentially used.

Our awareness is what gives us such existential dread in a moment in history that is otherwise the undisputed best time to be a human.

We need to balance our innate ability of detecting danger with our other innate abilities of strategizing and inventing.

After all, what’s the point of stressing about the future if there is no hope? What’s the point of fixing the future if we can’t also appreciate the present?

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On Needing to Find Something to Worry About — Why We Always Worry for No Reason

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We manic worriers need not sarcasm but supportive and intelligent company to give us the love we need to dare to look back at the past – and the insight with which to try to do so. Our feeling of dread is a symptom of an ancient sorrow that hasn’t found its target in the here and now; and our ongoing quest and alarm is a sign that we keep not finding anything in the outer world that answers to the horror of the inner one.

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You will always have more problems than engineers

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Most companies don’t get it. Most people don’t get it. To them, problems are a sign of failure. They think that the default state is perfection. They believe that if we just worked hard enough — planned hard enough then there wouldn’t be any problems. The only reason we fall from that perfect state is that someone, somewhere screwed up. But that’s not reality. The default state for our reality is chaos. It is ruin. It is entropy and erosion and human nature. We build things to make a better world, and yeah, part of that is people failing. People fail all the time. That sucks, but you’re not going to change it. So you might as well do a good job living with it.

This is really what we all need to cope with. The times we live in are chaotic, filled with uncertainty, fear, and a sense of impending doom. So much so that even our children are suffering at historic rates.

But as I deal with my own struggles to make sense of things, I continue to fall back on accepting that we've always lived in a world that is rife with turmoil. All we can do is go along for the ride, appreciate what we have, and be grateful for those who we can lean on to help navigate it together.

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The History of Cognitive Overload

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There is too much in this article to even grab a single pull quote from. The entire thing is worth reading from top to bottom.

It did make me think a bit about how I can apply some of this knowledge to my own life. I personally struggle with “what will I be when I grow up” from time to time, and I think even simply knowing that this is not abnormal is helpful.

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How Olympians Embraced Mental Health After Biles Showed the Way

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The American ski racer Alice Merryweather sat out the 2020-21 season while confronting an eating disorder. She had gone to a training camp in September, hating the workouts and the time on the mountain, wondering where her love of skiing had gone. A doctor diagnosed her anorexia.

“I just kept pushing and I kept telling myself, ‘You’re supposed to love this, what’s wrong with you?’” Merryweather said. “I’m just trying to be the best athlete that I can be.”

Merryweather said that she began to open up to friends and teammates. Most knew someone else who had gone through a similar experience. “I realized, why do we not talk about this more?” Merryweather said. “I am not alone in this.”

The more I deal with my own pressure and anxieties, I wonder this same question myself.

Why don't we talk about this more?

Why is stoicism the preferred method for dealing with mental health struggles?

Why do we pretend that the things we want at the end of the day are different from most any other human?

And when will we learn that the only truly sustainable way to really get the things that you want (and the things that truly matter) is through cooperation?

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