Damn Words

joe —  Sat 3-Nov-12

Writers BlockI’ve been struggling for the past few weeks; struggling to write a new column.

It all started about a month ago when I decided to look back at the body of work that is The Stranded Starfish and see what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown. Being the typical engineer, I started with data. I built a spreadsheet that listed all of the past articles and some interesting details like number of columns, average word count per column, etc. I also write a weekly innovation column for work, so I included that data as well.

The stats surprised me. In these few short years, I’ve written close to 100,000 words in 120 columns. When I went back and read a bunch of the articles, I was again surprised by the variety of topics covered. There were some columns I barely remember, until I read them again and fondly recalled why I wrote them in the first place.

Here’s the problem: the next column I write will only move the dial 0.8% from where I stand now. It will only be one of 121 columns. It will have to stand against other columns that were as intense as the death of two of my coworkers and as widely cited as the column on performance reviews. How could what I write next possibly matter?

Pyramid schemeI expect that there was a sense of great accomplishment and satisfaction when the Egyptian bosses laid those first stones of the pyramid. I am betting that as time rolled on and they were simply placing yet another stone somewhere in the middle that the excitement significantly waned. Yet, somehow they continued.

I have equally marveled at how sports dynasties can pull off another championship, just like last year, and the year before. It’s easy to get excited about that first championship, but how do you get excited about staying there? Yet, somehow they continued.

I’ve always dreamed about being a rock star. It wasn’t until a Genesis concert that I realized how hard it must be for Tony Banks to get up day after day and play the same hit song that Mike, Phil and he wrote 20 years ago. I wonder if bands sometimes hope a song doesn’t become a monster hit fearing that it may become the albatross around their neck. Yet, somehow they continued.

Once the initial excitement wears off, what’s left? How does one gear up for just one more championship, one more stone, one more performance, or simply one more column?

That’s where I have been these past weeks. I’ve written the better part of four different columns this month only to throw each of them away because they didn’t seem to matter. Then I stumbled upon some words I shared with a friend many years ago:

You can tell you have a great vision statement, if, when you are lost it can lead you back.

Starfish atitudeThe Stranded Starfish vision was built solely for the purpose of making a difference one starfish at a time. It was not designed to save the starfish population. If I have been successful in my mission, I will have affected 120 people’s lives. That is overwhelming to me, but I must ignore it completely or risk never writing the column that may reach that next starfish.

It’s funny how we need to look back on our past work to feel as though we have made a difference, yet must often pretend as if we have accomplished nothing in order to continue to make that difference. To compare the one small thing we need to do today with the volume of things we have done before today only marginalizes the value of today. It can paralyze us.

Stop for a moment and take a look at the difference you have made to others. Recall all of the words of wisdom that you have shared, the meals you have made for friends suffering a crisis, the time given to simply listen, or the money you donated for disaster relief. Feel the warmth you get, knowing that, in retrospect, you have accomplished more than you probably give yourself credit for. Bask in that for just a moment.

Now, forget your hits of the past, your stones on the bottom of the pyramid, or your last three championship seasons. All of those started with a single note, a stone, or a game – one that might never have happen again if you constantly compare what you need to do today with what you accomplished yesterday.

With that in mind, I finally pen column number 121, with the single hope that it simply reaches one starfish.