Today I had a vivid flashback to a moment at my old job. In it I was concentrating on the lower corner of a huge (8 ft. x 4 ft.), dry-erase whiteboard that monopolized my office wall. It was a familiar moment. Often I would focus on parts of that board where I had brain-dumped the finer details of some major project–a re-design of an existing system or a symbolic representation of something computer-related that used to work but was now malfunctioning. To work out something tedious, I found it most helpful to start with a blank board and illustrate the bird’s-eye view. Afterwards, I’d drill down into the details. By the time I was done, there was more black than white on the whiteboard.
As days rolled by, I’d stand in front of it and periodically revisit the “big picture,” following particular paths down into the deep recesses of my mind. Inevitably, I’d squeeze in additional points for consideration. The perfectionist in me would not allow I overlook anything. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that in the computer world, and in the world in general, the integrity of an entire system can rest on one tiny piece of the whole.
There were times when a particular technical landscape would lay sprawled out on that wall for weeks, begging for resolution. Every time I walked in or out of the room, I’d examine it briefly. Other times, I’d focus on it for an hour or so, awaiting a revelation. I’d scribble some more in the shrinking white space–numbered lists, illustrations, flow charts, words getting smaller and smaller trailing sideways up the board, arrows pointing this way and that. Oftentimes, the board would remain etched in my brain and accompany me to the coffee room, lunch, or to bed, where I would continue to work on its contents.
Eventually, I would unearth my solutions and would finally transfer the important information to a more stable medium so I could wipe the board clean again. The most pronounced feeling in this flashback was satisfaction. I loved digging deeply into a problem. I loved the undivided attention and brain-power it demanded. I loved capturing fleeting words and images and taming them into something that made sense. I loved submerging in deep thought and coming up with an answer. Even better was the responsibility for and the ability to make a judgment call on what to do next–to act with conviction and the satisfaction of having gone the extra mile to fully understand.
I’m embarking now on a new path that doesn’t require that I report to a building each work day, that doesn’t have a whiteboard, and that doesn’t yet pay. It’s a bold step for this highly conservative career-chooser. I’ve always played it safe by charting a career path that is stable and lucrative. But a somewhat planned break from the mainstream has allowed me space to consider, “What next?” And with that has come much writing, and even more writing, so much so that this blog was born. It appears writing is what’s next.
Part of starting anew is to adjust to a redefined normal. But look at me. I am so heavily attached to my past that I am daydreaming of my whiteboard. I am so heavily attached to being productive and having proof of that in the form of a regular paycheck that I question the validity of what I am doing in preparation for my new path when there is no source of pay yet. By choice, my new normal is to work from home, to work alone and without the encouraging pat on the back that can let you know you are doing it right. Even more striking, the new normal means no pay for some time to come, and then only as long as I hustle for the work, and maybe not even exactly then. This will take some getting used to.
What I may not be able to get used to, though, is not having my huge whiteboard to help me channel my thoughts to a satisfying end. I am a deep thinker and a constant one at that, and if I don’t funnel these thoughts into one central space, it fills my computer screen with sticky notes and eats through stacks of notepads and finds its way into one of at least eight notebooks that hold To-Do lists of ideas on a multitude of subjects. What I’m left with is scores of details scribbled out all around me but no one place to illustrate their respective places in the big picture.
Often, I wish I was one of those people who can focus easily on just one thing at a time. At almost any moment, I have a hundred things on my mind. To get to the one thing, I need to quiet the noise. Tricks like using a whiteboard to dump the contents of my brain get me there quicker. It keeps me from rehashing those one hundred things–the pea under the mattress that keeps me awake at night. It allows me to pick up exactly where I left off and dig even deeper, maybe extracting that pea after all.
Yes, I definitely need a whiteboard, especially if I expect to live happily ever after.