Day Zero

A good number of years ago I left my job to work on something new. That something comes out tomorrow. Today, here’s the story of how I got from there to here.

It starts with Kermit the Frog.

The Round Pegs in Square Holes

The Muppets have always lived in this place in my heart that whispers up to my brain, saying, “You can be anything you want to be. You can be creative. Major in Philosophy or Film Studies. Don’t worry about what you want to be when you grow up.” As one gets older, the impracticalities of this fantasy start to show through, but the general idea never left me.

2009 or ’10. I have a job at a university that’s fine but isn’t really pushing me. I like the people I work with (and am still in touch with many of them). They treat me well and respect me.

One day I go to a meeting with my counterparts from other campuses. Some are much older than I am. I see my future if I keep doing it. (I don’t mean to belittle them. As I said, it was a good job, just not one I had any passion for.) A little voice whispers again, tells me that I’m wasting myself coasting on a job that isn’t challenging me.

Then Steve Jobs dies. To me, Jobs always represented this guy who had an idea and went for it. That “go where your passion takes you” spirit becoming a true success story. In 2005 Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. He said:

And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

I wasn’t where I needed to be.

Interlude: All I Needed

My wife and I were big fans of The Office around the time we were planning our wedding in ’06. I was looking for a song for our first dance that was 1) not your typical wedding dance song and 2) not very long so that we weren’t out there with everyone watching us for ages.

We saw the scene in the Christmas special where Dawn kisses Tim and loved the moment. I suggested “Only You.” Is it the best wedding song? No, but its use in that Office episode was special and it worked for us.

(The correct answer, FWIW, is “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields. Or maybe the Peter Gabriel cover. I didn’t know the song then.)

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me

Thanksgiving holiday, ’11. I suggest to my neice and nephew we go see The Muppets. Not having been raised on the characters, they’re not tremendously eager, but they agree to come along. There’s a Toy Story short attached that helps loosen them up. By the end, they’re totally on board with the Muppets. It’s a delightful movie and we have a wonderful time watching it together as a family.

I have this general idea that for something to be your favorite movie or favorite book or whatever, it has to qualify as something of literary merit, not be too popular but also not so obscure that you look like you’re trying to prove something. Like, you don’t pick Citizen Kane because that’s too much of a classic, but you don’t pick something frivolous or over-popular, either. But screw that. My favorite show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I’ll say it: “Rainbow Connection” is my favorite song. It’s so damn genuine. It accepts both the folly of following your dreams and the necessity of those aspirations.

A few months later. My wife and I expecting our second child. I’m walking to the Metro. “Rainbow Connection” shuffles onto my headphones and I start to cry.

Rainbows are Visions

May 2012. After a frantic high speed car ride I’m in the hospital holding a brand new baby. I start to tell her, “I promise I’ll never let anything happen to you,” and then catch myself.

I have a vision. I see myself as a baby, being held by my own father on the day of my birth, and he’s wondering what I’ll be when I’m his age. (As I write this, I’m now that age.)

The right promise isn’t that you’ll protect your child. Of course you will. But that’s not your real job. What I see in that moment is that this little baby I’m holding has already been given a set of gifts by God. Talents waiting to be discovered. It’s my job to help her grow into a person who can figure out how to use them. I wonder, if my dad’s holding me thinking the same thing, am I, decades later, on the path that’s letting me make the best use of my gifts?

I have some ideas for iOS apps. At an IHOP I present my plan and my amazing wife agrees. When her maternity leave ends I’ll quit my job and stay home with the kids while I work on programming.

Now I need to tell my boss.

I’m sitting in a restaurant eating lunch, working up the courage to resign.

“Rainbow Connection” comes on the radio. It feels like a sign, like I’m being told, “You can do this.”

I finish my falafel.

“Only You” starts to play.

God puts His hand on my shoulder, says, “and you’ll have support.”

It’s Something that I’m Supposed to Be

My childhood was a steady stream of Gen X encouragement. Everyone’s special. You can do anything you set your mind to. Follow your dreams. Thing is, growing up I was good at most things I tried. Math, science, reading. Honors and AP classes, All-District band. But what did I want to, like, do?

I was always a little jealous of the people who went to college already knowing what they wanted to major in, what job they wanted. I sure didn’t. Didn’t know after I graduated, either. Nor when I turned 30.

Eventually, gradually, I started to figure it out. I wish it hadn’t taken this long, but here’s what I think I can offer: figure out the thing that, when you’re doing it, you often have a moment where you look at the clock and realize you’ve forgotten to eat. Or that it’s way, way past time when you should have gone to bed and you had no idea because you were just so caught up in what you were doing.

Life’s Like a Movie, Write Your Own Ending

Somewhere in there, I found those things for me. I started a company and named it Probably Magic LLC, after a line from “Rainbow Connection.” There was a weekend where my wife and both kids were on a Girl Scouts camping trip, and instead of playing Heroes of the Storm for 24 hours straight, what I wanted to do was work on the app.

It comes out tomorrow. It’s called Wallachia. I hope you like it.

David Ely @davextreme