Archive for the ‘life’ Category

In November 2011 Ilya Zhitomirskiy, only 26 and one of the co-founders of Diaspora, the “open-source Facebook” which received notoriety after raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter (at that stage the most successful project on the crowdfunding platform) killed himself. His mother still believes that if he didn’t start the project he would be alive today.

On January 11 this year Aaron Schwartz, a celebrated and much-loved hacker and activist took his own life. He was also 26. I never met Aaron but several friends were very close to him. One was his partner. Reading the tributes that poured in it was impossible not to be deeply saddened that someone so young, so talented and with so much to contribute had given up like this. The loss not only to his friends and family but to all of us is immense.

And just two weeks ago I read about the passing of Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom. I didn’t know Jody either but he was also admired by people I admire. The initial reports avoided specifying a cause of death but he too had committed suicide.

As Jason Calicanus asked  over the weekend, should we talk about this?

Yes, we should.

Entrepreneurship is a really hard road, filled with rejection, misunderstanding and self-doubt. You pour yourself into a project only to see the world disparage or, worst, ignore it. You must deal with people telling you to get a real job, with the stresses of poverty and uncertainty, with the constant possibility, indeed the likelihood, of total failure. But your job is to project constant positivity, to always be selling your vision and product, to inspire people to join you on this mad mission.

You probably work long and unhealthy hours. You might struggle to find time for exercise, or to socialise, or to take time out to be alone and reflection.

In other words it can be a very unhealthy pursuit, not only physically but emotionally.

During the eight years I led Vibewire I had many dark days, days when I was so exhausted I was reduced to tears, days when I couldn’t see how we would continue. But then I’d go to a meeting with the Vibewire team or a potential funder or a media interview and I’d have to summon all my positivity and energy and pitch our programs and vision of the future, convince them all that there was a pathway to the future we sought.

After I left Vibewire in March 2008 my successor as CEO had an emotional breakdown just a few months later, crushed by the complexity of our projects and the constant workload and stresses involved in bringing in the funds required to keep them alive.

So how did I survive for the eight years before that? First of all, I didn’t entirely. By the time I departed I was utterly burnt out, and for the year prior to that I was just barely nursing myself through, on many days just focusing on the day before me and what I needed to do to get to the next one, like a prisoner in jail, desperately pushing myself to get what needed to be done, done to get the organisation to the point where I could walk away. Once I did it took me months to feel like I could be productive again.

I pushed myself through thanks to incredibly supportive parents, sibling and partner and a group of friends outside the world of social entrepreneurship, who cared about me rather than Vibewire, who valued me as a person, not just an entrepreneur. I would go out with them to parties in the forests which wrap around Sydney at least monthly and stomp my frustrations and stresses into the dirt dance floor until there was just the freedom and joy of movement and dancing and friendship, and my heart filled up with love, community and connection to nature. Being part of this creative, DIY community kept me balanced, with dancing allowing me to be in my body, not my head, and the friendships I formed giving me an identity outside of Vibewire, outside of entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what drove each of these innovators to take their own life. For Aaron an over-zealous prosecution and the threat of jail was clearly a unique and significant factor. All of them struggled with mental health issues at different times. But I do know that as entrepreneurs we are all prone to driving ourselves to breaking point and that one of the hardest but most important things we must learn is how to be personally sustainable, how to take care of ourselves, in the midst of stress and uncertainty and repeated failure.

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that you can become your venture in the eyes of many people. People would often say in introducing me “Tom is Vibewire” and I would cringe, knowing that wasn’t what we were going for at all, that it was in many ways a sign of failure to build the broad base of leadership we needed to be successful but also that it was such a narrowing of me as a person. And it’s also true that in entrepreneurship, unless you are truly gifted or lucky or more likely both, you’ll have as many bad days as good ones, as many set-backs as successes.

As Jess Lee, founder and CEO of Polyvore pointed out in a great recent blog post titled “Why are startup founders always unhappy?” even a successful growth pattern is wiggly, and as entrepreneurs tend to live mostly in the moment and also be very ambitious it’s easy to get depressed during a down phase even if you’ve experienced extraordinary success over the preceding period of time. And if you are your organisation, when the organisation is struggling you feel a failure personally.

Jess puts it this way:

Humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.

This is why it’s so important to have a life outside your startup, to have an emotional floor that doesn’t undulate with your company’s fortunes.
I am not trying to generalise the experiences of Ilya, Aaron and Jody. Each was unique. But I have been finding myself thinking about these issues repeatedly over the past few weeks as tragedy followed tragedy, about my own struggles and what it takes to survive as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Ultimately it comes down to balance, however you find that, to relationships, and community and love.

So please be good to yourself everyone, and give yourself what you need to be sustainable and happy and whole.


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XXL - mag3737 on flickr

When I was in Melbourne late last year I experienced a life milestone, and not of the good kind. Short on clothes due to my dedication to travelling with a single bag I popped into the factory outlets on Spencer St and bought a t-shirt. An XXL t-shirt. The first time I’ve had to buy clothes at that size. Yikes.

Clearly I’ve gained a bunch of weight since leaving San Francisco in April. I don’t even know how much, I don’t use a scale, but it’s obviously too much. I feel unhealthy, I don’t look so great, my new doctor told me off and my damned clothes don’t fit any more. The impact isn’t just on my appearance. I think physical health is critical to mental and emotional health, especially when going through busy and stressful times. In the absence of healthy energy fueled by exercise and good eating I’ve been pumping my body full of stimulants to sustain my workload. My coffee habit has escalated out of control, I’m easily up to 4 or 5 a day, and my sugar consumption is unsustainable.

Things need to change.

How did I get here? I’ve actually gone through a series of swings with my weight over the past five years. There’s a correlation with moving – I had significant weight gains when I first arrived in Washington DC in 2008 and in San Francisco in 2010 and now again last year with my return to Sydney.

I need to be pretty constantly active to maintain a healthy weight (true for most of us) and the only way I ever manage this is through the creation of routines (also true for most of us). Moving throws out my routines, especially the one that takes the most effort to preserve: being active. Bunkering down on my laptop, going drinks with old and new friends, trying out new restaurants; all these things I do in abundance when I get to a new place. But exercise? Not so much it seems.

So that’s going to change. My bike finally arrived from the US recently after more than 6 months in transit and I can’t wait to get back on it. I’m a commuter-rather than touring cyclist, I ride to-and-from places, so combined with the fact I’m back in the office 2-3 days a week (I’ve been working from home since Bodhi was born) I’ve got a good chance to build exercise back into my life regularly. I also want to get back into tennis which I was playing regularly in SF and DC.

I’m not just going to rely on my own motivation however, I plan to take advantage of some new tools to get back on-track. Building routines is really hard for me and structure and accountability is critical.

I’ve just begun using Sessions, a San Francisco-based startup co-founded by Aussie entrepreneurs Nick Crocker and Ben Hartney which provides virtual personal trainers. So advice and encouragement and help establishing and sticking to a routine just like an in-person trainer but none of the shouting, which I’m not so into, and at a cost I can afford (well, it’s free at the moment, as I’m a beta tester of the service, but beyond that it will be a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer).

Designing a schedule with my personal trainer Glennis and then having to report back to her really helps with my sense of accountability. The encouragement doesn’t hurt either. But the other element is tracking, ie. knowing what I’ve actually done. This is especially relevant if my primary exercise is going to be cycling and walking rather than gym-based routines. There’s a variety of apps which track movement. Two I’ve used in the past are Runkeeper and Google Tracks. I’m also trying out Strava which was created specifically for cycling and tracks personal bests along various routes. The feedback loops created by these tracking apps is pretty powerful for a relatively-competitive person like me, allowing me to constantly pursuit personal best distances and times. Runkeeper can be synced to my Sessions account so my trainer can see what I’ve been up to so that’s probably the one I’ll use most.

And sharing all this publically will also help with my motivation and accountability – feel free to ask how I’m going.

So, the rough plan:
-regular rides, with a longer ride approximately weekly
-a morning walk near daily (I’m up early with the baby anyway so might as well take advantage of these newly-discovered hours in my day)
-a weekly game of tennis (if you’re in Sydney and enjoy tennis get in touch, I’ll need playing partners)
-daily stretching and strengthening exercises for my back, and maybe getting back into Pilates

And I’m going to eat better, because that’s the other part of the equation that I’ve been particularly slack on these past few months (your pies are good Australia).

This isn’t about vanity; it’s about how I feel and what I’m capable of doing. And it’s about being physically sustainable in the long run, so I have the strength and energy to do the things I love as I get older, hiking and camping and long-distance cycles, backpacking and playing cricket and being able to keep up with Bodhi for as long as I can. I keep thinking about how when he’s 18 I’ll be 51.On behalf of my future self I have to take this stuff a little more seriously now. Not just my weight but my overall health, and especially my weak back, which can only be successfully managed through constant maintenance.

So this is something I need to do for the present and the future, and in keeping with wellness being one of my themes for 2013 . I’ll let you know how I go.

Photo by mag3737 made available on a creative commons license via flickr.

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Not quite the last sunset of 2012, but almost!

Not quite the last sunset of 2012, but almost!

We recently had our first holiday with Bodhi, ten days over in Western Australia catching up with my extended tribe over there and spending some quality time with Bodhi’s grandparents and aunt.

I had meant to write this while on vacation but found this impossible. I got half an hour on my laptop the day after we arrived and never got it out again. Holidaying with a baby is a different sort of holiday, more hectic and immersive, and you never really have time to fully relax or check out. Or write. At least I didn’t this trip, but I didn’t mind because it was so much fun to do stuff with Bodhi and to introduce him to so many family members.

And so it is that I find myself finally composing this now, long after I should be sleeping, a week after new years.

While I didn’t write it down I did manage to do something thinking on the trip, and some brainstorming with K, about our aspirations for the year ahead. I remember the same period a year ago, the slight anxiety about all the faced us: moving countries, becoming parents, our lives changed forever. A year on things feel more settled. Parenthood is endlessly challenging but infinitely rewarding, there’s isn’t an international move on the horizon, I’m not looking for work.

This sense of greater stability has allowed me to re-focus on some of the other things I care about, and the lifestyle K and I want to build in the longer-term.

I’m really into the rule of three at the moment. Three goals for the day, three themes for the week, three foci for the month. So in reflecting on the year ahead I decided to focus on three concepts for the year.

Wellness – restoring myself to a state of greater fitness and better health. Learn more about food and develop better eating habits. Support K in her food goals for the year.

Commitment – Getting more attuned to the needs of my family. Taking good care of the garden and learning to do things in a more organic way. Sticking with routines required for better health and productivity. Being more consistent with my writing.

Balance – Give my best self to all areas of my life. Be focused, productive and strategic at StartSomeGood and Make Believe. Be there for my family. Take better care of myself.

I’ve got a very good feeling about 2013. I feel like I’m on the cusp of a real time of change and evolution, but with my feet firmly on the ground, embedded in community and purpose.

Happy new year everyone!

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The fact that it is December is kind of blowing my mind. This year has gone by at the most extraordinary pace, blurring together in my memory like the countryside outside a speeding car. Moving from San Francisco back to Sydney, moving into a new apartment, starting a new job, welcoming our son Bodhi into our lives, working hard to grow StartSomeGood into a success, traveling regularly for business and pleasure.

I’m back to Melbourne this week for the Global Shifts Social Enterprise conference, my fourth trip to Melbourne in the last few months, which is completely unexpected. Two weeks ago I was there for the excellent FWD2012, Australia’s first conference on digital campaigning co-hosted by Oxfam Australia and the new Centre for Australian Progress. I flew there directly from Adelaide, where I was attending the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) Summer School. Both events but particularly SIX have left me filled with ideas and thrilled to have met so many amazing people working in this space. While Social Innovation might be hard to define the people who self-select to join this conversation are unusually passionate, creative, caring and intuitive and it was both a pleasure and an honour to spend a few days in their company.

Going back only two weeks before that I was up in Far North Queensland to see the solar eclipse, which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The November 14 2012 eclipse outside Cairns has been on my agenda since I was unable to make it to the last full solar eclipse in Australia, near Lynhurst South Australia in 2002. Since then I’ve framed many of my plans around this event: we had always planned to time our return from the US to be able to attend and even with a 3 month-old in our lives, and with the support of the greatest wife a man could hope for, I was determined not to miss it (I’d be waiting another 16 years before the next one in Australia which will be in Sydney in 2028). And wow am I glad I could make it and deeply grateful to K for making it possible for me to do so.

The Eclipse

Watching the moon blot out the sun and the day suddenly disappear into darkness was one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed. It’s impossible not to be awed by the experience, by the sense of galactic scale, the realisation that we are sitting on a little rock floating in space, surrounded by other rocks. The spectacle is unique and magical: watching the moon creep across the sun until, with a final solar glare, it is gone, replaced with a dark ball in the sky surrounded by a thin line of light. We happen to live at the perfect moment in the history of the earth when this is possible, a period of only 20,000-100,000 when the moon exactly fits the sun from our vantage point, before the moon’s inexorable movement away from us at about 3cm a year leaves only partial eclipses possible. I met a guy on the plane to Cairns who was going to his 14th eclipse and now having witnessed one and I understand the instinct. I’m not going to wait until 2028 to see another  – I’ve got my eye on the Eclipse Festival in Oregon in 2017 (heads-up American friends!).

The Eclipse Festival, November 14 (click for full size)

And beyond the eclipse itself the week-long music festival held under it’s path was the best I have ever attended (note: burns are not music festivals). Incredible production, inspiring music, good food and, most importantly of all, a wonderful big group of friends there to share it with, many of whom I hadn’t see for many years or if I had only briefly. Spending time with them, and making new friends, was the true highlight of the festival (as it always is).

Bodhi continues to delight and amaze K and I. Every day he seems to have a new movement, sound or ability. This is my favourite new photo of him, from our visit to my parents property this past weekend, if you’d indulge my parental desire to show him off (I have to restrain myself from saturating Facebook with Bodhi photos):


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Watching the news today I saw highlights of Obama’s last rally of the campaign in Iowa and my mind flashed back to the same night four years earlier, the night before the 2008 election.

We left Washington DC at dusk heading West. By the time we arrived in Manassas, 35 miles South-West into Virginia, it was dark and a light rain had started to fall. It wasn’t hard to find out destination, which was the Manassas fairground, but finding a park was a more significant challenge as the streets were choked with cars parked in every conceivable spot, legal or illegal. Finally we found a place and walked to the fairground, where Obama was holding his final rally of the 2008 campaign.

People streamed in the same direction as us and a buzz of anticipation and energy filled the air. It felt more like arriving at a festival than a political event, a feeling reinforced by the stalls and spruikers which lined the street for blocks before the entrance.
The Fairground itself was a sea of people and I wondered if we were going to get close enough to even see Obama. Eventually we emerged into the back of a field with a stage set up at the far end, surrounded by red, white and blue bunting. A huge “VOTE FOR CHANGE” sign rose above the bleachers to our right. We had made it just in time for Obama.

I think he was introduced by Mark Warner, the Democratic candidate for Senate. The 100,000+ crowd roared. I’d never experienced anything like it. I’d been at huge protests before, but the energy there is more defuse and chaotic. Here it was focused with a cultish intensity on the man on the stage, the soon-to-be President of the United States, barely blinking for the 45 minutes he spoke, mesmerized by his well-practiced lines. He closed with the story of the origin of his “Fired up! Ready to go!” chant, the exact same story he finished his final rally this year with.

A lot has happened since then. Some of the hope which characterized the 2008 campaign has become the resignation of this year. Where Obama’s 2008 campaign was fueled by a belief that politics itself could be changed for the better this year’s campaign is focused on a more traditional calculated: that the other guy is worst. Whoever wins a segment of the population will reject them as illegitimate.

The widening gap in the American political discourse, where arguments center no so much on what needs to happen next but on fundamental disagreements over what just happened, with facts only as valuable as their usefulness in advancing an argument.

For all the fanfare of participation around the presidential campaign and the real and important differences between the candidates, American democracy is in real trouble as the ability to talk and compromise becomes increasingly rare.

For me personally it’s been an extraordinary and often-challenging four years. The passage of time always spins me out and anniversaries like this prompt me to try to hold all that has happened over these years in my head at once. From Washington DC to San Francisco and then back to Sydney. Building communities and starting a family. Launching a company and struggling to hold onto my visa. Adventure and uncertainty and joy and frustration and love. So many experiences as we went out there and came back again it kind of boggles my mind.

And I can hardly imagine what the next four years will bring.

Fired up. Ready to go.

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Lantern-making at Woodford Folk Festival

I was meant to run a workshop on social change communications at Regrowth Festival the weekend before last, at 10am on Sunday to be precise. A few things went wrong with this plan:

  • I was given the wrong workshop title in the program: “Sharehood” (a collaborative consumption website which, while cool, I have nothing to do with);
  • Instead of camping with our two-month old we were staying in the nearby town of Braidwood and got away late and took two wrong turns on the way to the site in the morning, resulting in me arriving at the workshop tent twenty minutes late, which sucked, but not too much because;
  • Only a couple of people actually turned up looking for the workshop (despite a blackboard prominently displaying the correct topic of the workshop, so can’t blame the Sharehood thing too much).

Which is fair enough. I can’t remember a time I’ve been at a music festival – let alone at 10am in the morning on Sunday, when it’s possible, just possible I’m saying, that I’ve had a late night the night before – and I’ve felt like learning about social change communications.

So this got K and I thinking, what does make a good workshop topic in this kind of setting?

Festivals are experiential. You’re not there to spent too much time in your head, you’re there to run around and dance and see friends and listen to music and hang out in your campsite and so on. The best thing about festivals is how present-ing they are. With so much immersive activity and social interaction you find yourself deeply, completely, present with everything around you.

So to firstly want to go and secondly to remember to go to a workshop requires that it be something you strongly want to participate in or learn about. We decided it required a topic which is specific enough to give a strong sense of guarantee around the outcome – ie. a specific practice like yoga which you know you enjoy, or belly dancing which you’ve always wanted to try or permaculture which you’ve always been curious about.

There’s a two-word title and it describes a specific and knowable experience or outcome. But the topic must also be general enough that sufficient people at this specific event have heard about it and are interested. And it must be actionable enough that attending makes a difference, ie. the experience is either intrinsically satisfying (yoga, dance classes, lantern making etc) or you can imagine using what you’ve learned in the near future (a how to massage, permaculture, music production, etc).

We tried to imagine what we could share at next year’s Regrowth Festival (which will be back at its usual time of Easter) which is specific, general and actionable enough, unlike my workshop this year which, while somewhat actionable, was neither specific nor general enough to attract participation. We came up with the idea of teaching a “prepare for the playa” workshop to help people plan for and go to Burning Man.

This is specific enough to be knowable – ie. you know you’re going to find out about what’s involved in attending a specific festival in Nevada. It’s general enough, given that it seems like everyone has heard of Burning Man these days (all of a sudden) and those that haven’t gone tend to have a real curiosity around it, and it’s actionable, because if you’re planning to attend next year’s Burn in August you should probably be starting to plan a little, or at least get your head around what you need to plan, by April.

Hopefully this will go a little better than this year’s effort!

What do you think of our criteria for successful festival workshops? Did you miss anything?

Photo by jemasmith via flickr, available on a creative commons license.

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Modern parenting you guys

Monday marked two months into the Bodhi era and it’s been a joyful and exhausting blur. It feels like a massive journey already and yet it has barely begun. We’re filled with excitement about all that will come next, and delight in the constant tiny changes in Bodhi, the increased presence in his eyes, his new news, the way he now tracks objects and raises his head. Bodhi is beautiful but man he can be a bit of a baby, crying all the time, not contributing around the house, stuff like that. So it’s been a lot of work. We either laugh or cry or fall asleep on the couch at 8pm.

Which is totally okay and to be expected but I have other work to do as well. StartSomeGood is at a very delicate moment in our history, with some good runs on the board and a growing community but a lot to do to get where we need to get to to be sustainable. The next few months will be a make-or-break time for us as we relaunch the site and bring some new people onto our team. I’ve also been getting more involved in Make Believe as we explore the impending transition away from the last involved founder and what the company might look like in the future.

If I only had these two businesses (and my role on the Vibewire board) to work on life would be more than hectic enough, but I’ve also working on two major consulting projects which in a quirk of scheduling were both due last week, almost crushing me.

But I don’t want this to come across as a great big whinge though because I don’t really feel that way. This is just the reality of my life right now. In truth I can’t get over how much good stuff is happening and how fortunate I am to have so many opportunities to make a difference and do good work with great people.

Having so much on stretches my time management abilities to the limit. There’s something pretty exciting about having to pack it all in though, scrambling and hustling and staying up late getting the work that needs doing done, and balancing that with the demands of my family. I haven’t figured this balance out yet, things fluctuate too much from week to week and K carries too much of the burden, but it feels like we’re not too far off. The meaningfulness of it all keeps me energised and my many deadlines keep me (mostly) focused and somehow it is all (mostly) getting done.

This past weekend was inspirational. After getting those reports done we attended the Regrowth Festival, a stunning little festival near Canberra organised by some dear friends of ours. It was incredible to catch up with so many friends and see how far the festival had evolved since the last one I attended in 2007. And most of all it signified that life is on-track – that we haven’t gone to ground but will continue to live the lives we love, filled with music and friends and adventure. And a baby. All pretty amazing really.

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