Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Inspire Someone

I recently had coffee with a new friend that changed may have changed my life.

I say "new friend" meaning that we barely knew each other when we first sat down. We had met a few times in seminars around campus, and decided to grab a cup of joe when we arrived at a seminar and found that we were the only two people who showed up. Looking back I'm amazed that it happened at all. On this day it was a balmy 45 degrees in town, and raining harder than I've ever seen (strange fact: every time that I've seen this person since, its been raining...). I suppose most people had nice excuses for not coming, being busy with other work and not wanting to brave the trek through what could have been Noah's Flood. 

I almost didn't come myself. It was the end of a week in which I had worked a minimum of 12 hours a day (Winter Break, what's that?). When I saw the rain, I just wanted to stay inside (sure didn't help that I was wearing my favorite new sport coat and tie). I had LOTS of work to do, and this was just a seminar I wanted to attend, not a mandatory event.

"Maybe if I skip this, I can go home earlier." 

Once we arrived, we waited a few minutes to see if anyone else was coming. When it became apparent that we were the only people crazy enough to walk across campus in the deluge, we considered heading our separate ways to get back to the grind. I admit that I was relieved at the idea, I just got 2 hours of my work day back. Instead, I found myself swimming across a parking lot to a trendy coffee shop (you know, the kind with a broken glass door taped back together for the past 2 years because the hipsters that run the place think its a symbol for something? they're probably right). So there we sat, and he asked me a fairly standard question: 

"What makes Tony tick? Tell me your story."

What happened next doesn't happen very often. Most of the time when people ask that question, they really just want to talk about themselves. Usually, its lasts a few minutes and then splits off into a discussion of something else. We sat there for 2 hours, listening intently to each other's stories. Asking questions, laughing at the funny parts, empathizing and making light of the challenges we had faced.

I left that coffee shop and had one of the most inspired, creative days I've ever had.

When you're faced with a To-Do list that is weeks long, and you have something scheduled for more than 80% of every day, it can be down right impossible to stop and reflect. The time we spent over coffee was the first I had stopped to think about how I ended up where I am in so long that I can't remember.

Stopping to think about my journey had a couple strong effects on me. First, I realized how fortunate I am to be here. My home life is awesome. My wife and I are best friends, and we've come a long way together.  I could never have made it to this point without the love and support that we share. The truth is that I love my job, and I would probably do it for free (Boss, if you're reading this don't get any ideas...). Second, I got a chance to look over the challenges I've faced, and realized that I am much stronger than I think I am. Nothing about my experience has "fit the mold," nothing has gone according to plan. The whole trip has been very messy. I realized that I like it this way. I've worked hard, never knowing exactly where I was going, but feeling hopeful. And I ended up in a place that I feel ALIVE.

How to Inspire Someone

Do you want to find inspiration? Do you want to inspire those around you to do great things? Then do for others what my new friend did for me: Ask them to tell you their story. Listen, and mean it.

A funny thing happened while we were talking. We discovered some deep-seated common ground. We both have a strong passion for education and learning. Now we meet to talk about these things once a week, and we are working together on a project that I hope will awaken a whole new way of building creativity in education. For me, it very well may change the direction of my career, who knows? But that's a story for another day. One thing is certain: I won't let myself get too busy to have a cup of coffee with good company.

Thanks GC.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blogging and Brainstorming

Hello, Everyone!

So here I am, writing my first blog post for the world to see. It's funny how my online presence has morphed over the past few months, and so I think I'll start by telling you about it. Along the way you'll get to see what this whole "Tony Brainstorms" thing is all about.

I actually created the "Tony Brainstorms" pseudonym with blogging in mind. Blogs represent a low-risk, but public, forum for us to try out and refine new ideas. Engineers call this brainstorming. When we start to solve a new problem as a team, engineers usually begin with a brainstorming session. The team agrees to share every idea, no matter how ridiculous. During brainstorming, there is no such thing as a wrong or bad idea. There is great power in this form of free thinking. In most cases, out of the multitude of silly ideas rise a few great, new, unique ideas that can be pursued and refined into a solution that no one else has tried.

So I've got a name, now it's time to start blogging, right? Wrong. At the time that I created this blog, I really hated blogging! Here is what I was thinking:

"The internet has brought us a vast array of new information and sources that are very useful. Along with this new information has come a new ability: anyone can publish anything for the world to see. As a "connected" culture, we are able to instantly tell the world how we feel about the tuna fish sandwich we are eating, a breakup, a job promotion, gripe about a class, or share our thoughts on politics. Some of this information is useful to others, or at least interesting. The rest, however, represents a new form of pollution. I hate to cite statistics without sources, but I can't seem to find the article I read that says: We are now generating more written content in a day than was generated in the entirety of human history before the internet!
This information requires storage (i.e. huge data centers with operating costs, power consumption, etc...), indexing (Google, Yahoo, etc...), maintenance (both site hosts and individual "publishers"), and filtering (it takes me a long time to filter out the content I am not interested in). I read that a "google" search takes about the same amount of energy as boiling a cup of water. I wonder what the power bill will be for storing this post for the rest of time? We are going to need to solve these problems if we ever hope to be a modern, "green" society.
On top of all of this, I am way too busy to take up monitoring and contributing to blogs (Grad School is much more than a full-time job!). And lastly, I just don't enjoy it."

"So why did you create a blog?"

Mainly because I had to. I was in a teaching course that was exploring the use of blogging in education, and the blogs were to be an extended online discussion forum. During my time in that class, I wrote about a dozen blog posts. I saved them all as drafts and never published a single one. I couldn't get past the idea of publishing something for the world to see, and then changing my mind and not being able to take it back.

"What changed your attitude?"

While I wasn't blogging, I did begin building my online empire under the name "Tony Brainstorms," and it really took off. Tony Brainstorms has TwitterFacebook, and YouTube accounts. I've managed to join the conversation with people from around the world who are just as passionate about teaching and engineering as I am. On YouTube, Tony Brainstorms is approaching 2000 views, from all 6 continents that people live on (sorry Antarctica), 64 countries, and 36 states. These Social Media Outlets have brought me into a whole new world of connectedness that I've come to love. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and watching as mankind builds the most dynamic creation in history, I've become an architect. That's the beauty of the Web, we are all agents in the act of creation.


When it comes to engineering, the Brainstorming session is my favorite part. Before reality strikes and we must apply the concepts of physics and thermodynamics, before we have to solve fully-coupled non-linear transient differential equations, we get to spend a brief moment with our heads in the clouds asking only one question: "What If?" During this time of unfettered thinking, the magic happens.

I hope to treat this blog as a great big brainstorming session. Let's agree that in this place there is no such thing as wrong or bad ideas. Rather, they are leads to start thinking about concepts that could develop into great ideas. During brainstorming, we don't hold each other accountable for every word spoken, and we can always go back and change our mind on an idea or opinion. Who knows, at the end we may have something very unique, and a very interesting "paper trail" that chronicles how we got there.