May 29, 2005

Star Wars: The Wrath of “I Can”

If someone had told me back then that when George Lucas completed his saga I’d be living in Washington, DC, working as a Web designer for the Smithsonian, living next to a suburban forest with my wife and two children, and that I would actually be happy about being bald I would not have believed them. My first question would have been, “What the hell’s a Web designer?”

I survived my early angst with a little help from Obi-Wan Kenobe. I began to learn the ways of the Force. But I decided to stay down-to-earth. In the ensuing 28 years I have developed a philosophical skill set —a guide that helps me weather the complexity of ideas and changes that mark contemporary culture.

The opening of The Revenge of the Sith marks an important milestone in my life. It’s a time to reflect on all that I’ve learned since Luke and I discovered the Force:

  • The Leia Principle: When you tell someone you’re going to do something, do it. I met my wife this way. By the time she’d met me she was about to swear off of men. When I actually called her like I said I would, she was amazed. On our first date we discovered we shared this desire to trust a person’s word. A good reputation is hard to build. This has served me well.

  • The Han Solo Canon: Gauge the importance of the conflict and act accordingly. I only learned this after being married and getting a full time job. Both a family and the workplace are complex social organisms. And learning to prosper in each requires well-honed social skills. In both cases when confronted with potential conflict I’ve learned to ask myself: “Is this a big issue or a little issue.” Learning to “stand down” on these small things is hard to do. Backing off is an art any Jedi would be proud of.

  • Luke’s Rule of Thumb: If you don’t know how to solve a problem, all you need to know is the next step. People can get overwhelmed when trying to solve complex problems. By “complex” I don’t mean rocket science. Domestic and work-related life is filled with detailed issues, whether it’s assembling a new lawn mower (with a poorly written user manual) or developing a small project management plan. If my logic can’t “see” the endpoint (and more importantly, how to get there) all I need to know is the very next step. One step will lead to another and so on.

    Parsing the project down to simple steps reduces my stress. I can envision actually accomplishing my task rather than feeling lost. And, taking one step at a time allows me to decide what to do next based on the results of the task I just completed.

    If I don’t know what to do next, I find a person who can lead me to that next step. The Net is great for this. Did you know there is an online community devoted exclusively to the esoteric mastery of opening computer ports? Referred to as “port forwarding” (at least in their circles), this was a lifesaver when I recently wrestled with my home wireless network.

    If I didn’t take this one step at a time I would have been overwhelmed. To some I am the consummate tech professional. Well, my kids think so. But foraging in alien galaxies gives me hives. Finding people who can help me is a great next step.

  • Darth Sideous’ Edict: It doesn’t hurt to ask. Certainly not a unique philosophy (“Ask and you shall receive”), this has served me well over the years. It’s really quite simple: if you want something from someone, ask for it. All they can say is “no.” People’s fear of that word often stops them from asking. But if I ask and am rebuffed, thereďż˝s no harm. At least I tried.

    Of course, there are some basic rules I follow here: I always ask nicely. I never expect to be given anything and I am gracious when the answer is “I’m sorry but…” And whether I’m asking for something small or large, I come prepared with reasonable arguments in hand.

    A few weeks back my family went to a discount mall. While my wife and girls went looking for pants I spied a Clarks outlet shoe store. I walked in and showed the manager the holes in my most comfortable and favorite shoes. I was hoping he might take pity on me and give me a $10 discount on a new pair. Instead, he said “Let’s trade your old shoes for new ones.” I was shocked —totally blown away. What customer service! Was I still on Earth?

    With one small act, this manager made me a customer for life. But it would never have happened if I hadn’t pointed out my displeasure at the holes in my less-than-year old loafers. It didn’t hurt to ask.

  • R2-D2’s Equation: A + B = C. This has become my guiding philosophy in art and life. It is woven into everything I do. Juxtaposing seemingly disparate ideas on top of and inside each other often gives me great insight and the ability to formulate new ideas and thoughts. Remaining creative despite society’s pressure to conform is one of my most cherished endeavors. And I will go to the ends of the Earth and beyond to keep this part of my head and heart above the fray.

  • C3-PO’s Precept: It always works out. The older I get the more I’ve experienced. And the more I’ve survived the bottom of the barrel, the more I believe that no matter how bad it gets, it will alway work out.

    Even when I’ve been without a job, money, and love —feeling utterly alone in the world, I knew, despite my fears, that it would get better. Usually, this meant that big changes were coming —internal changes that allowed me to adapt. Perhaps this came from putting A (the way I had been operating just wasn’t working) on top of B (looking at my life or the situation with new eyes) resulting in a new C. Despite being voted “Most Pessimistic” in my high school graduating class, somehow I’ve become just the opposite.

  • Darth Vader’s Axiom: People are generally consistent. Things are rarely black and white these days. Figuring out what’s behind people’s words and actions can be a full time job. If the level of discourse you have with others constantly shocks you, it’s easy to build major defenses from the outset. However, if you subscribe to the philosophy that individuals act in a consistent manner over time, even if they are consistently inconsistent, then you may be surprised by people’s actions. But you will rarely be shocked.

    Using this allows me to predict how a person will react to what I say or do. I can more effectively communicate with others if I craft my words in a way they are most likely to hear. Rather than subscribe to “I act in the ways I would like to be treated,” I act in the ways I think the other person would like to be treated. It’s a simple adjustment to my communication skills.

    This also helps keep my expectations realistic. I am rarely shocked when someone has a fit. I may be surprised that an adult could actually act like a four year old, but I’m never not shocked.

  • And finally, Yoda’s Dictum: a good listener you will be. What have you learned since Star Wars debuted a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away?

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