Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Leave it all behind

I have a favourite T-shirt that has imprinted on the back, the words "Leave it all behind". I came across this shirt ten years ago, when I saw it, I just felt I should get it, the slogan profoundly resonated with me on so many levels, as if it was created just for me! It became my favourite Friday casual dress to work. Ten years on, and it still remains a favourite, so much so, that my wife went out and produced a replica for me as a father's day gift. A friend recently probed why this particular tee resonates with me so much...on what level, what/why does Leave it all Behind signify - so I tried to explain to him, and now I want to share this part of me, publicly on my blog, for all to see.
Yikes, isn't this risky thing to do? Why on earth expose myself like this?

Well, one of the reasons for starting this blog, was to push me to my limits, to the edge of my comfort zone, embracing the public of the internet, being inspired by the writings of Jeff Jarvis, people (friends, colleagues, potential recruiters, clients, etc.), to experiment in this new world...

So here goes a new "About me" post...

If you've read other posts about me, you will have learnt that I've worked hard to get where I am today, with an almost relentless passion to push myself to the limits, to never give up, hard work, determination & grit. Part of this desire lies with my tendency to leave my past life behind, do what it takes to break-away from the underprivileged, below middle-class, above-poverty line life that I grew up in. In doing so however, I realised that working too hard all the time isn't everything, that work too, should be just left behind:
  • I try not to take work home in the evenings or weekends - I leave it all behind.
    • Work can wait (I generally average around 10 work-hours a day), there are other important things to consider in my life: my family, my own personal space for spirituality, and my hobbies, interests (like reading, blogging, self-learning) and my desire to experiment with new ideas to look at starting-up my own business one day.
      • When I'm at the office, I give it my all, my 150% attention to detail, follow-through, focused and try to be hyper-productive. I set myself goals for each day, aim to get everything done and dusted - and leave the office switching my mind off from work.
    • I learnt this the hard way. I worked on a few death-march like projects when I used to work in the UK. Worked to the point of burn out on more than one occasion, the constant is that the work will always be there tomorrow. Leave it all behind, start fresh tomorrow.
    • I try to switch off from work when I'm at home, it has become easier over the years. No more do I wake up at 3AM writing up emails, planning the days work, solving problems. Although sometimes I can't help myself when I'm really passionate about an idea, but most of the time, I leave it all behind and don't let work be the focus of my life...even now that I'm a consultant and don't have the comfort of a permanent pay cheque, holidays or insurance - I still have a good night's sleep.
  • Don't let things at work affect me too personally
    • I once was on a project that had SLAs in place for engineers to be on-site supporting the customer in the states (LA). I was looking forward to my two weeks stint as I'd never been to America before, and I was the senior engineer on the project anyway - it so happened that at the time of this event, my in-laws made their first trip to the UK. The timing of the US Visa application didn't make forward planing any easier, so I was left with a choice of staying back and fulfilling the rights of my wife and in-laws, or leaving them for two weeks and go to America. I chose the former, choosing to Leave it all behind at work. Yes, it did take a toll at the office, my commitment was questioned, at the end of the day, another engineer went in my place, engineers are a dime-a-dozen, parents & family are priceless.
    • For over two years I ran a daily morning power meeting, 9AM-10AM, with really difficult managers, characters and personalities. I fell below most of them in the pecking order, yet I had to co-ordinate, assign them actions and get updates. Sometimes there were heated debates, sarcastic remarks (this was the UK of course), I would be left drained after the meeting...I learnt to shrug it off, Leave it all behind
    • Even today, I run my meetings and workshops - people show up or not, pitch up complaining about not having enough time to do real work, etc - I'm not phased. My meetings have purpose, there's always a goal with expected outcomes, I give people advance notice, time to prepare. I'm human, I do take note of comments, value feedback and take criticism to self-reflect and improve things, but my point is, I don't let negative experiences in the work place affect me when I leave the office - I leave it all behind.
  • Don't get too stuck in projects, there will always be another project down the line
    • On more than one occasion, I took a break from core projects by transitioning just before final launch / go-live. 
      • In one instance, I had done all the work leading up to the release, the last issues needed closing out, there wasn't much to do and I didn't want to wait till the end to see through maintenance phase, there was another job waiting for me. So I left just before launch.
      • Another instance, the project had taken on a few more managers that I was transitioning and handing over work to, I felt that my personal life was suffering, so had requested a month's leave to go back home to South Africa, to see family, to re-energise, and also fix a couple relationship problems. It was a difficult choice to make, I gave a lot of energy to that project, and to leave the project just a couple months before go-live and handover the reigns to other project managers, just didn't feel right...but there were other pressing matters to sort out, so I left it all behind.
      • There will be other projects, my contribution to the projects is shown by the legacy I leave behind.
      • A good project manager knows when to handover the baton to others, and is willing to leave a project when the tipping point is within reach, when you're confident the worst is over, and the project is on a path to completing.
  • Be prepared to switch, take the risk & leap-of-faith
    • I left my home country, South Africa, because I saw a brighter future for me overseas, financially and professionally. I left my entire life behind, ventured into unknown territory, alone to see what will happen - I left it all behind
    • I fell in love with Dublin, Ireland - I thought I was going to live and work there for the rest of my life. Sadly, the work-situation wasn't that great, I experienced my first lay-off, which was a great learning experience. I learnt never to get comfortable, be prepared to leave it all behind and start fresh
    • I decided to switch from a senior embedded software engineer position to being a junior software engineer in enterprise / server applications space. I was on the road to promotion and being a senior/lead in embedded set top box projects, I left it all behind and started anew in a new team, new product space, new domain...and I never looked back. That experience rounded me in so many ways, to the point of working for the best self-organised, high-performing team I've ever worked with.
    • I had the perfect job before deciding to leave the UK, I had reached my goal of working for blue-sky, start-up like projects, the advanced technologies labs team that looked ten years ahead. Free to dream and invent new things. The competition to land that job was great. I had left management all behind and returned to coding, working on accessibility projects, doing tangible value-add stuff. Two months into the job, another personal decision materialises: to return back to South Africa, after spending ten years building up a career (and a life: had my own house, excellent relations across the business spread across four countries, kids of school-going age, good friends) I left it all behind.
    • Most recently, I made a switch into being an independent consultant - it wasn't easy leaving it all behind, as I was turning down a very good permanent senior position in the company, we had just completed a major product delivery, I was set to go places...but personally, company politicking-aside, I felt I could achieve more for myself, on a personal & professional level, so I left it all behind to start afresh as a consultant, opportunities abound in South Africa, especially with the skills-knowledge-competency gaps in the country.
  • Choose my own work
    • I would like to reach a point where I can cherry-pick the work I take on, aspiring towards working a 20 hour-or-less work-week, to focus more on things that add value to me, leaving the rest behind.
Personal / Spritual
Part of my growing up, I knew what it meant not to have things. It thought me self-control, discipline and a sense of awareness that life isn't all that easy - sometimes dreams, desires and fantasy must be left behind because of the facts-of-life & reality of the situation (such as apartheid). I left behind my desire to study medicine because I couldn't afford to, had no money. I left behind that college dream and was prepared to work-and-pave-my-way, until an opportunity presented itself...

In my teenage years and early adult-life, I came into contact with people on the Sufi path, focusing on inner reflection and perfecting one's self. To let go of the ego, see this world as just a temporary stage, to strive to being a better human being, letting go of the ego ("Nafs"). These experiences shaped the path I would tread, to be willing to leave it all behind when required. In my years 20-25, I would seek out contentment, meditating each evening - to reach a point of being satisfied with my lot, of having just enough - whilst at the same time seeking out that balance of surviving in the world of work, and maintaining a spiritual path.

There's a saying that's attributed to Jesus (we Muslims hold Jesus in high esteem, as a prophet and messenger of God), that goes like this:
Jesus, son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: "The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen"
For a while that saying struck a chord with me, and may have delayed some of the grand ambitions I'd had earlier. Nowadays, I choose not to lead such a detached life, I'm aware of the temptations but accept I have to focus on achieving as much as I can in this world, at the same time not losing sight of the bigger picture, that this life is just temporary.

What is interesting is that Islam stresses the temporary nature of life, right from the moment of birth. When a child is born, the Azan/Iqamah (call to prayer) is read to the child as early as possible. When we die, the prayer service held, called the "Janaaza" prayer, omits the call to prayer. The reason is that the call to prayer was already given to you at the time birth, re-iterating the short nature of life: you enter this world to leave this world...be prepared to leave it all behind.

I use Leave it all Behind as the trigger when praying the Salaat (form of prayer that partly entails physical actions standing, bowing, prostrating - being mindful to God) that starts off by lifting both arms up, hands to the ears - the act of doing so signifies taking all the world and pushing it behind you, leaving everything behind to clear your mind and focus on the task at hand, of being fully present for prayer...

So spiritually, you can see where my personal biases come from - which has ingrained this personality trait.

Other personal experiences that re-enforced this message of Leave it all Behind is when I chose to leave my past life of being a bachelor, with many friends, including other women friends, past relationships behind - and focus on my new life, with my wife and kids. As difficult as it was to let go of past relationships, there is more value to my preserving and maintaining my own family life....

On the practical side of things, I also try to live lean-and-mean. I try not to hoard (my only guilty pleasure is a collection of printed books and journals that keep growing and growing) stuff - if I've not used a piece of clothing, furniture, gadget, etc in the last six months or so, I get rid of it. I keep the bare minimum required for me to survive, the less baggage I have, the better to Leave it all behind...