Being Grateful Is Good For You

Being grateful—for what others do, for good fortune, for what you have—is good for you. It makes you happier, helps you sleep better, and boosts your immune system. Being grateful is a good way to live and when you thank someone else for what they have done for you, I believe it fosters relationships, builds community, and encourages others to do the same.

I learned about the concepts behind journaling gratitude at my first KalamazooX when Elizabeth Naramore1 discussed her own gratitude journal. Around the same time, a Facebook friend started recording five things a day for which they were grateful. Looking back, this was the period when I started to acknowledge that I had unaddressed problems with depression, anxiety, and self-worth. Being grateful seemed like an easy place to start, so I gave it a try.

At different times, I recorded my gratitude using Facebook, Twitter, a physical journal, and my blog. Eventually, it started feeling stale or false; I was being thankful for inanimate or generic things like coffee, friends, or sunshine. Don't get me wrong, these are all fantastic things, but stating gratitude for coffee felt like my goal had become writing about gratitude than actually feeling grateful.

"…people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why."

Sometime before a visit to Boston, I had read about a man who set out to send one "thank you" note a day for a year. The idea of writing to people and thanking them directly was appealing. While in Boston, we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and there I bought a box of postcards that I thought would suit this purpose. It took another two years and a move to Texas before I actually got started.

It has now been three weeks since I started; I have sent 20 cards, and have another four ready to go this week. Writing them is cathartic for me and I get a little excited to mail each one. I keep a list of the people I intend to write to and make sure to keep track of those to whom I have already written. Each day, I send one card, write one or two more, and send a message or two over the Internet to get addresses. However, it turns out that some people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why. This seemed odd to me at first and I felt untrusted. In addition, I felt a deep reluctance to explain why. It seemed I felt the value of this project was lost if the postcard was not a surprise. Of course, that is ridiculous; not only do people have every right to know why I would want their address, but if the surprise of receiving the card itself were the value, what would be the point of writing anything on the card?

So, I write this blog entry, in part, to provide an explanation for people when they ask why I need their address. That said, I also write it as encouragement to others who might be considering the start of their own gratitude project. Being grateful is powerful on its own, yet the responses I have received to messages I have sent have been wonderful, humbling, and kind. People are amazing, so tell them; the more you thank others for their impact on your life, the more you will be surprised by your impact on theirs.


  1. IIRC 

KalamazooX 2016

It's time! #kalx16

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

This weekend, I attended the Kalamazoo X conference in Kalamazoo, MI. KalamazooX, or KalX (as it is more often referred by organizers and attendees alike) is "a one day, single track non-tech conference for techies", or perhaps "it is a soft skills conference", or perhaps not. You see, like a book filled with complex characters, rollercoaster plot twists, and profound revelations, it is hard to describe KalX; each description I hear is somehow right and yet completely wrong, painting KalX as something you have already experienced where speakers talk of project planning, team communication, and time management. But KalX is different. KalX is where you hear about the importance of empathy, the roots of genius, or the virtue of personal reflection. KalX might help with your soft skills, but only through indirect action, through powerful talks on why practice trumps passion or creates genius, how apathy and empathy are both needed to foster better relationships (at work or otherwise), or what it is to simply give a shit (and sometimes, to give a shit too much).

Some interesting insight into genius from Alan Stevens and a much needed personal break from tears #kalx16

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

Whether speaker, organizer, or attendee, KalX is catharsis in the shared and personal experience; strong emotions —anger, joy, sorrow— marked by F-bombs and tears; and unexpected moments (some uncomfortable, some reassuring) where attendees might think "me too", "that's bullshit", or "I am not alone"1.  It is in those moments that KalX shines, the moments when we are raw and exposed.

Four years ago I attended my first Kalamazoo X conference. It was then held in a classroom at a local college and there were about 50 people in attendance, including speakers and organizers2. I had no idea what to expect, so when I found myself crying, stuck in the middle of a row of people I barely knew, I felt surprised, uncomfortable, and confused3. I do not recall if I knew at that moment, but I now look back on that day as the start of what would lead to the diagnosis of my anxiety disorder, its treatment, and the continuing changes to my life that followed. That experience pushed me closer to asking for help.

Though it was for me, I would never say KalX is life-changing; each person experiences it differently and each year is different. In the safe space of peers, where the speakers, unfettered by recorded sessions, can open up about their personal experiences and the things that, in other forums, might be hidden from view for fear of judgement or isolation, KalX facilitates personal discovery. This year, I felt anxiety rise from nowhere when one speaker (Ed Finkler) started to tell my story. Ed doesn't even know me and yet there he was talking about General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), fearing entering bars to look for people as though a lion might be waiting to attack, thinking things through to find every possible outcome and worrying about all of them intensely. Though I wanted to hear more about how he coped with it all4, I was amazed to even know that there was someone out there just like me. It was scary and reassuring, and I might have been the only person in the room that thought so.

We all know I need to heed this #kalx16 (thanks, @leongersing)

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

When I first started writing this post, I tried to summarize the whole day, but I couldn't do justice to Christina Aldan, Ed Finkler, Kate Catlin, Jay Harris, Cory House, Leon Gersing, Lauren Scott, and Alan Stevens, or their talks on empathy, apathy, genius, passion, and more besides. It is hard to describe what they said in a way that could convey what it was like to experience it at the time, just as it is hard to describe KalX as a whole. It is even harder to describe these things to convey how someone else might have experienced the day. In realizing this and the inadequacy of phrases like "it's a soft skills conference" or "it's a non-tech conference for techies" I have wondered, how could I describe KalX in a single sentence? I don't think I could, not because KalX is some indescribable experience, but because each person finds value from it in different ways. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no apt summary, no convincing abstract; sometimes you just have to read the book for yourself.

 


  1. Or briefly, involuntarily emit an inappropriate laugh at that same realisation 

  2. this year had closer to 200 

  3. KalX can really sneak up on you 

  4. how I could cope with it all 

Community

I am pretty selfish. I would like to think I can be wholly altruistic, but I cannot remember a deed I did for someone else where I was not rewarded by a general feeling of well-being. Perhaps this is normal and we kid ourselves that true altruism exists because, well, it feels good to believe that. Recently, I realised it is because of this feeling that I volunteer as part of the local developer community.

I have been involved in the Ann Arbor area developer community for just under five years. A couple of colleagues had suggested I attend an Ann Arbor .NET Developer (AADND) meeting, but oddly, a woodworking class is what led me there. In that class, I met fellow developer Steve Meagher, we became friends, and he eventually persuaded me to tag along with him to a .NET meeting. Like many within the developer community, I avoided user groups and other community events for fear of not fitting in or some other perceived discomfort. At that first meeting, I met David Giard as he was the speaker that evening. Meeting David turned out to be a gateway into the wider community and volunteering. At the time, he was the president of the Great Lakes Area .NET group (GANG) and he invited me to attend a meeting there the following week. Just as with Steve at woodworking class, another connection was made and so it was that my adventures in the developer community continued. Through the friends I made attending the local groups, I ventured to far off places like CodeMash and Kalamazoo X. Through the friends I made attending those far off places, I ventured to electronic wonderlands like Twitter, StackOverflow, and my own blog. And eventually, through the encouragement I received from this amazingly supportive community, my family, and my friends, I found the courage to look inward, to seek help for the demons that fostered my low self-esteem, and to grow.

I have volunteered on the board of AADND, as a participant and team leader at Give Camp, and as a speaker at CodeMash; having thoroughly enjoyed every second, I can tell you that volunteering is 100% pure fun.

OK, that is utter bollocks; volunteering is hard. There is no pleasure in finding content for newsletters and slide decks, no joy in the conflicts a team faces when you have less than a day to get a database migrated, no comfort in preparing and rehearsing a talk1. Volunteering is often stressful, sometimes boring, and always built upon a foundation of compromise and sacrifice. If those things were the rewards of volunteering, I cannot imagine anyone who would do it. Every year, Michael Eaton tells a tale of how he declares that this Kalamazoo X will be his last. That it is too much work. Too much worry. Too much sacrifice.

Thankfully, the hard work leads to gratitude: the emotional words of a non-profit director overwhelmed by the generosity of local developers; a room of people applauding at the end of a talk; or a simple "thank you". Regardless of its delivery, seeing or hearing that someone is grateful makes all the effort worthwhile. It feels good. For community volunteers like Michael Eaton it is the gratitude shown by attendees, speakers, and co-organizers that ultimately leads to more events (like just one more Kalamazoo X).

So, next time you enjoy something that someone volunteered to do, show your gratitude. And if the opportunity arises, try volunteering; you have no idea who might be grateful and how good that might feel.


  1. or a last minute Pecha Kucha that your friends then make sure will get heard while you are busy searching for that lost sleep 

#kalx15: Back to Basics

This weekend a couple of friends stopped by the house at around 5:45 on Saturday morning. Normally, this would not be welcomed, but it was time for our annual road trip out to attend the Kalamazoo X conference. This year marked my third year of attending this fantastic one-day, single-track, soft-skills conference. Though often referred to as a non-tech conference for techies, Kalamazoo X is a really accessible event and as such, this was the second year that my wife, Chrissy, also joined us.

This year's conference was held at Loft 310. I found the new venue — with attendees sat around tables similar to how people would be seated at a wedding or party — to be an improvement over last year. Though fantastic, last year's academic venue, larger attendance, and expanded speaker schedule lost much of the intimacy and community that made my first year at KalX a memorable and somewhat life adjusting event. This year was a return to that more intimate experience of two years ago, feeling much more like a gathering of friends and family than a conference of professionals.

The speaker schedule was also condensed this year and all the better for it. The roster included a welcome return of some KalX veterans like Jeff Blankenburg (@jeffblankenburg), H. Alan Stevens (@alanstevens), Jim Holmes (@aJimHolmes), and Elizabeth Naramore (@ElizabethN), as well as some newcomers like Jay Harris (@jayharris), Cori Drew (@coridrew), and Dawn Kuczwara (@digitaldawn). Though each topic was different, they were bound by the common year-on-year KalX themes of learning, mentoring, and growing.

Upon reflection, the talks that I remember most vividly were those where the speaker opened up, let down barriers, and gave honestly to the audience. Alan Stevens was, as always, a joyous speaker to experience — his command of space and time when delivering a talk is really exemplary, yet it was his candidness in discussing his struggle with depression with which I connected. While Cory House (@housecor) spoke on breaking the monotony in life and stepping outside of our comfort zones, it was when he opened up about his social anxieties and personal journey to overcome them that I took notice. And though Jay Harris delivered as polished a presentation as he ever has, it was his willingness to share his broken dreams of baseball and airplanes, open up about personal challenges, and be as raw with the attendees as he is with his friends that took his talk from good to great.

Though I enjoyed all the talks, it was Jay's talk, #conviction, that stood out most for me. Jay's message felt like the third part to a trilogy that started with Jeff Blankenburg's talk, "Be A Beginner", and was fleshed out by Alan Stevens' talk on "Values Driven Development". Jay judiciously spent every second of his time with a well thought out rebuttal to the too often repeated adages "follow your passion" and "hard work pays off". It is easy to ignore the privileges we have that we more commonly refer to as "talents", to let humility lessen their importance, but it is talent coupled with conviction that leads to success1.

Of course, it was not just about the guys. There was not only a more diverse audience than one might expect, but three of the eight speakers were women2. A favourite talk of the day for me was "Give Up!" from KalX newcomer, Dawn Kuczwara. Through personal anecdotes and a wonderful, personable delivery, Dawn explained the importance of letting go of control, of allowing people the opportunity to fail and learn, and of making sure not to stifle the growth of yourself or your team by micromanaging and "helping". To me, this talk was the second part to another trilogy that was started by Cori Drew and her impassioned (though perhaps a tad too long) talk that related her experiences mentoring her daughter from curious kid to seasoned speaker (at age 11), and closed with Elizabeth Naramore explaining why it is always OK to follow your passions in your leisure time, regardless of talent.

Though it was a long, tiring day (I drove, drank far too much caffeine, and stayed up way too late), Kalamazoo X was a day well spent. I am grateful to Michael Eaton (@mjeaton), Matt Davis (@mattsonlyattack), and all their minions, speakers, and tolerant friends and family for the time and patience spent in organising and delivering a terrific conference. Once more, after CodeMash had refreshed my curiosity, Kalamazoo X reset my spirit.

 


  1. having a passion for singing does not mean you can sing and no amount of hard work will change that 

  2. This shouldn't be a point of note, but in an industry traditionally dominated by men, it is 

Kalamazoo X 2014

Last year, I experienced the Kalamazoo X Conference for the very first time. It was an extremely emotional experience and one of two events that catalysed some ongoing personal change (the other was changing jobs after 12 years).

This year, I returned to Kalamazoo X, curious as to what the experience would hold. It was daunting; it felt different.

It wasn't worse different or better different. It wasn't different because the talks were new or the venue had changed to accommodate more attendees. I initially thought it was different because last year's talks were focused on the self and "accepting who you are", whereas this year's centered around others and how we can benefit those around us.  But then I realised that view is coloured by who I am (or was). It was different because I was different.

My life changed after attending Kalamazoo X last year. After the conference (perhaps even during), I started to reflect on who I was, faced old and painfully familiar demons, and began focusing on my well-being in a way I had not allowed myself to before. I began to recognise that I was broken and as the weight of one of the worst winters in history crushed my spirit, I finally sought professional help.

It was a long time coming. Friends had urged me to try counseling for years and perhaps once or twice, I had conceded they had a point, but that was just to shut them up; I knew I wasn't weak like that, I was strong enough to weather my problems alone, to be a "man", to cope. But coping isn't enough. It isn't enough for me or those around me and coming to that realisation is crushing, at least at first.

I am still working through that personal change, the cliched "journey of self-discovery", and I am all the better for it. Kalamazoo X 2013 started something, something that affected how I experienced Kalamazoo X 2014 and life in general. I am certain Kalamazoo X 2014 has started something too.

For me, Kalamazoo X isn't about learning something new or retweeting a pithy statement (though I certainly enjoyed that part). It is about perception and coming to terms with the things I have to let go. It's about growing and perceiving that growth.

I hope to return to Kalamazoo and the X conference year upon year, not only to measure my own growth, but also to see the growth of others. The software development community is incredibly nurturing and nowhere exemplifies that more than Kalamazoo X.