Something bigger than yourself

I’ve fallen behind in my weekly writings on the Obstacle is The Way, and I’m currently overwhelmed with work. But, I needed a break and decided to get the post about this chapter written as a treat to myself. I picked the chapter thinking I’d find it uplifting. I didn’t.


This chapter begins with stories that I’m supposed to find uplifting: the tales of U.S. Navy pilots who’d be shot down over Vietnam and were able to resist their captors in as much as they stuck together.

Unfortunately, the days of my looking up to John McCain are not likely to return because of a single anecdote in a single chapter, and so I mostly found myself thinking “Hmm, seems like moral fortitude is a resource that can get used up.”

And that’s not why I’m in this project.

However, later in the chapter, the musician Henry Rollins is quoted as saying this in the financial crisis:

People are getting a little desparate. People might not show their best elements to you. You must never lower yourself to becoming a person you don’t like. There is not better time to have a civic backbone. To have a moral and civic true north. This is a tremendous opportunity for you, a young person, to be heroic.

And I think I can get behind that. I can understand the idea that it’s worth remembering that, adversity is the only opportunity you have to really be heroic. Because anything you do that is easy for you is… well, easy.

Later, I got more into the idea when it was suggested that focusing on others could be a selfish coping strategy. (It’s the kind of thing I want to do, wrapped in the kind of thing I need.) The question is put like this:

If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people? Take it for granted, for a second, that there is nothing in it for us, nothing we can do for ourselves. How can we use this situation to benefit others?

[…]

You’ll be shocked by how much of the hopelessness lifts when we reach that conclusion. Because now we have something to do.

Of course the chapter continues, but it’s more of the same. That doesn’t matter, I like the idea of knowing that, when I feel helpless, it doesn’t mean there aren’t actions I can take.

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Use Obstacles Against Themselves

I picked this chapter to write about because I was afraid that reading another chapter of “get to it, right now!” in my The Obstacle is The Way project would only serve to discourage me.


Gandhi didn’t firt for independence for India. The British Empire did all of the fighting–and, as it happens, all of the losing.

That’s how this chapter begins. And it covers, pretty well, what it’s about: the most direct, obvious action might not always be the best option.

And, to be honest, I appreciate this in the book, because there are clearly times in life when immediate action isn’t called for. Ryan Holiday goes on to mention more examples: He writes about Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent protests for civil rights. He even mention’s Alexander the Great breaking in his horse by simply waiting it out.

He even mentions the Mississipi river:

Before the invention of steam power, boat captains had an ingenious way of defeating the wickedly strong curent of the Mississippi River. A boat going upriver would pullalongside a boat about to go downriver, and after wrapping a rope around a tree or a rock, the boats would tie themselves to each other. The second boat would let go and let the river take it downstream, slingshotting the other vessel upstream.

The thing is this: there’s no real unifying theme behind all these obstacles, except that they all seemed insurmountable until they were surmounted.

That’s what, for me, this chapter is missing: some sort of tip that goes beyond “sometimes action isn’t the right action” towards explaining when it might not be the right action.

I don’t have an answer.

I do have a suggestion: perhaps rather than focusing on inaction, or using the obstacle against itself, another idea might be to say “what allies — including intangibles — can I find that might help me here?”

Ghandi was allied with moral right, and the fact that the British Empire’s behavior didn’t line up with its values. (Imagine a non-violent protest by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and you’ll see that moral right alone doesn’t get you far.) Martin Luther King, Jr. saw that African Americans were in the same position and that the same strategies would work. The Mississipi boat captains were able to ally themselves with physics. And Alexander the Great was able to ally himself with patience, tenacity, and the limits to his horse’s endurance.

Even that, though, works applying it to the solutions found in the past. How does it help me with my problems?

At the moment, I’m frustrated by my inability to find users for my website. I’ll ponder it, but I don’t see how being unkown is the kind of thing that collapses in on itself.

But then, maybe this advice isn’t meant for me right now. Maybe I need to be doing more direct action.

A business case

TLDR: The long and random argument I make to myself about why I’m going to start putting energy and resources into promoting something that could be stamped finished.


Time to make a decision

I’ve been thinking about my EFL worksheet generator. The thing is this: it does what I want, now. Almost exactly how I want it to.

I could declare it finished. That’s a crazy idea to me.

And yet, is it amazing if I’m the only one who knows it’s amazing? What’s more, ever since I decided to move the thing to the internet, as opposed to making the desktop interface better, I’m paying hosting costs. Not a ton of money, but much more than I would pay for a website like ESL Library.

Should I move it back offline?

I’m asking myself these questions because I’ve realized that this will never be a completely finished project. I’m taking a Udemy full-stack bootcamp, because there are ways the interface could be more amazing.

But, as I started looking into how to promote a web page, and even paying money to experiment with AdWords, I realized I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do. Am I the kind of person who gets excited about making and then promoting something? It doesn’t feel like who I am: I’ve never really felt comfortable saying “look at me!”

At the same time, it’s clear that “if you build it, they will come” is not a great strategy to follow.

So, I have to pick a future for the project.

The case against monetization

There are three big arguments against pursuing monetization. First, is the fact that I’m not really opposed to monetizing the website, it’s the fact that I’m opposed to investing a lot of energy promoting it. It’s just that I don’t think I can have one without the other. (Well, I could try and promote it without monetizing it, but then I’d be increasing my workload for… I’m not sure what for. Ego?)

The second argument against the whole thing is that I’m not sure it fits into my sense of who I am. I like the idea of being a “maker.” It’s a cool title and one I feel like I can give myself. There’s something existentially satisfying about having an idea and turning it into a reality.

Marketing, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like who I am. Or, I’ve never looked up to people who are great at promotion. The title “promoter,” to my ears, doesn’t sound quite the same as the title “maker.”

The last argument is time. I want to learn Latin. I want to work on other projects. Some of them are already pretty fleshed out as ideas. And, the worksheet generator is threatening to turn into a project that will take over my existence. Some of the things I considered doing as part of promoting it include:

  • Continuing to prioritize making free EFL materials.
  • Starting a blog focused on EFL teachers in Germany, to promote the site.
  • Making online tools to automatically generate materials from a text. (Copy-and-paste text from a company’s website to get a gapfill exercise prepared.)
  • Making a YouTube channel

The thing is, any of those could become a time-suck. Trying to do a combination of those and perhaps also paying for promotion… Well, it would require me to make a lot more money off the site to make it worthwhile.

The argument for monetization

On the other hand, as things stand now, the site doesn’t ‘feel’ finished, because nobody uses it. If someone told me he was proud of the site he’d made, but he was the only one who used it, I don’t know if I’d be as impressed with that person as I am with myself right now.

What’s more, a lot of the things I want to make are web-based. If they all incur costs, is there a point if I don’t know how to attract users? Why work hard to make the next site, if it’s just going to be a tool that I use on my own?

And, further, I could use the money. Not in the Elon Musk the-rest-of-my-career-is-a-working-retirement kind of way, but in the more modest what-will-I-do-if-I’m-ever-too-sick-to-work-for-more-than-a-week kind of way. A passive income would go a long way towards stability.

That brings me to the last argument for monetization (and the stress of promotion): I don’t want to be a career coder. I love making stuff, but I don’t think I could bear the frustration of coding just for the joy of coding well. The fun, to me, is in turning a dream of my own into a reality. I’m getting better at all this (though, by no means good), but I wouldn’t want to wind up in a spot where I have to go look for a job as a novice coder in my 40s, in Germany.

That means that, if I’m going to keep doing this, I’m going to be responsible for building entire projects, from start to finish. And, well, by that standard, the website isn’t finished. If I want to make an app to use in the classroom, or the fantasy pilgrimage website, all of these things will only work if I can both make, and sell them.

The business case

Here’s the last bit of reasoning: What would it mean for the website to be worth my while? By which I mean money. How much money means “this is why I do all this extra work?”

Obviously, there isn’t a maximum, but €500/month would mean I could quit one of my jobs and reduce the number of hours I have to work. That’s 50 people willing to pay €10/month for the service. Or, 71 people willing to pay a discounted price (if there’s a €10/month, €90/year kind of option).

Needless to say, I think those are great prices for what the site does (and for the amount of work I do making it work).

I haven’t been able to find out how many people teach English to adults in Germany, but I’m confident that there are at least 50 in Dresden. So, if I focus on the German market… the business case is compelling.

It’s compelling if I can learn how to communicate about what I do, and why it’s great.

Meditate on your mortality

It turns out that I accidentally wrote on a chapter out of order the last time I wrote in the The Obstacle Is The Way project. But, I liked it. So here’s another chapter chosen at random.

This chapter is a bit morbid, but my mind runs in these directions. It starts like this:

When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

-Dr. Johnson

And that sets the tone for the whole chapter. It continues to the story of Michel de Montaigne, who nearly died in a horse riding accident and was left changed by his near-death experience.

Ryan Holiday describes it this way:

… Coming so close to death energized him, made him curious. No longer was death something to be afraid of–looking it in the eyes had been a relief, even inspiring.

Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. And, fortunately,  we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this energy.

The rest of the chapter can be summarized like this: we like to pretend we’re going to live forever, but we’re clearly not. So, let the fact that you have things you want to get done and limited time focus your mind.

Put another way: live each day as though you would soon die.

Normally, I get a little reflexively … frustrated by this line of thinking. I want to say “why should I save for retirement when I’m supposed to be living like the terminally ill?” “Who would have children in that circumstance?”

And it’s hard for me, even now, wanting to engage with the material, to not take that refuge.

But, the fact of the matter is, if I did die in a car accident tomorrow, I would be glad that I’d made time for my kids today. I’d hate for my last day with them to have been one in which I was “busy” with “work stuff” and left them feeling less important than they really were.

I did a good job today.

But, on the other hand, it’s a balancing act and the chapter doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that. On top of living each day as though I want my kids to have a great ‘last memory’ of me, I’m also trying to live each day so that we have the resources to do the same thing tomorrow and next year.

However, Ryan Holiday is right in saying that there isn’t time to complain about what isn’t fair, or how things should be (I tend to be guilty of this latter offense). If I’m already saying that the dual responsibilities of living correctly today and preparing to live correctly in the future are too much, then why would I take on the extra responsibility of letting everyone know that I’m unhappy with things?

And, as always, the chapter ends pretty well:

And so, if even our own mortality can have some benefit, how dare you say that you can’t derive value from each and every other kind of obstacle you encounter?

The power of iteration

When I decided that the worksheet generator was going to suffice for bespoke worksheets, I started making more worksheets that I planned to reuse. Initially, it was just because I was nervous talking about “business English.” Eventually, it was because I found that those worksheets provided a pleasant structure and were one more way to bring grammar back again and again.

Starting the project, I hoped to realize two goals. The first was to get one step more away from the situation where each week handouts from a different website are presented to the students, giving the impression that “Toby just prints stuff out from the Internet.” (Nobody ever said that, I just didn’t want to reach that point.)

The second was a time savings. The worksheets took some time to make, but offered more structure (usually, I plan on blocks of four to six lessons for a topic) and saved me the hassle of searching for a suitable handout before each lesson.

The unexpected benefit

The thing I didn’t expect, however, was the improvement in the worksheets. Typically, I’ll teach a block of worksheets and, in class, scribble a note on what wasn’t clear for the next time I use the worksheet. Because I’m checking these things to update dynamic-efl.com (someday I’ll do a post on my workflow there), I update the worksheets as I go.

Then, later, I remember a block of worksheets as ‘successful’ and get them out for another group. And I’m pleased at how much better they are, but, with a different group of students, find ways to improve them.

None of this should be surprising, but it’s the first time I’ve really been exposed to the power of this kind of iteration. I know there is only the one series of business worksheets on the New Spork City site (same link as above), but that’s because I want to move through some of the series with another group to make sure I’m happy with the current state of the worksheets.

What do I learn from this?

I think this is the harder question. I mean, I’m impressed by the whole thing. But, shouldn’t that translate to more than a blog post? Can I reference ‘the power of’ something without trying to make the most of that power?

Thinking about this, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t do more things with an eye to re-using them. I have colleagues who have ‘files’ on each of their conversation topics. It would be an organizational hurdle for me (organization is not my strong suit), but it would make sense.

Do you have any other suggestions on where I could ‘harness the power of iteration?’