Galen Ballew

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Dear Galen, 2018

14 April 2019

Dear Galen,

I’m writing this letter a little further into 2019 than I had planned. Last year was a doozy and it’s rolled over into this year a little bit. Convincing myself to write this series seemed like a no-brainer at first, but sitting down and being honest about the past year took more effort than I expected. I learned a lot. The lessons I learned were major ones too. When you read this, I don’t expect you to have mastered them. I just hope you haven’t forgotten and that you’ll continue to work on them. It might take a lifetime and that’s okay. But not everything that happened this year was so serious - there were a lot of good times and a lot of hard work. You accomplished a lot to be proud of.

What Happened

On November 13, 2017 I had my first day at work for my first full-time, salaried position after graduating college. I was hired as a Senior Cloud Engineer at TransUnion thanks to two of my best friends, Brian and Sara, who have been my coworkers since then. I was lucky to be hired by a phenomenal manager, Mark, and put into a department with a bunch of great guys. I’m easily the youngest guy in Enterprise Architecture. Sometime’s it’s been tough feeling like I don’t have peers to commiserate with (it’s been super cool to have Brian and Sara either in the building or in Skype. I talk to them and see them often.), but overall I feel lucky and privileged to be surrounded by role models and mentors. It’s not lost on me that I was hired into a Senior role after an internship. I had some imposter syndrome for most of the year, but my 2018 performance review was stellar and I received a promotion.

In April 2018, I traveled to Sydney, Australia for 3 weeks to get tattooed by Lance St. Vincent. I had been sitting on a sleeve design from Punctured Artefact for two or three years and Chas had recently started on his body suit. I was flush with cash (if you ignored my outstanding debt) since I landed a good job, and we planned the trip together to celebrate. I spent the first week alone waiting for Chas to arrive and did a ton of walking. Sydney is absolutely gorgeous. It was almost a shame that we got tattooed because our sessions were so long and frequent (8 hour sessions, 3 days a week for 2 weeks) that were were too beat up to do much else besides rest, eat, and drink. I’m looking forward to going back - maybe even for another tattoo!

In February, before I left for Australia, I had broken up with my girlfriend. I met her in January 2015 and we started dating about 10 months later. 2017 had been an extremely challenging year for us. Although we turned the bend in 2018, I had lost my direction and I couldn’t imagine our future together the way I used to. It wasn’t a very complicated break-up at the time. To this day, I still don’t really know what it was like for her. I continued talking to her afterwards, but less and less frequently as I traveled to Australia and then later she traveled to Greece. We reconnected at the end of the year, but it didn’t go well. We’re now estranged. I had more turmoil in my personal life in July. Someone close to me suffered from acute mental health problems. This was a real wake up call for me. I had not been prioritizing my own mental health for quite some time and I was reminded of times in the past when I had been in much worse condition. I was able to fully empathize, but knew I could not walk the path for them. Instead, I refocused on my own path and try to remember that you never know what someone else is going through.

What I Learned

2018 was certainly a year of firsts and firsts are always learning experiences. Work was particularly new. I stepped into a senior role at a large enterprise and it took awhile to integrate it all. The biggest lesson I learned, and one that I’m still working on, is that most of the time work is relatively ambiguous. It’s not necessarily laid out exactly what you should be doing at any given time. Companies devise all sorts of frameworks (like Agile) in order to help combat this ambiguity. For me, it took some time to get over this lurking sense of doubt or lack of direction. Moving past that allowed me to develop a bias for action - or sometimes to know when enough was enough! I need to pay attention to the low-key, chronic stress that can arise from not having clear indicators of performance or progress. More than once, I’ve felt myself getting burned out for no apparent reason. It’s important to take a deep breath, relax, and take a day off occasionally. Work isn’t everything.

I’ve also found it extremely important to ask a lot of simple, redundant questions. There are a lot of different types of people out there and they all have different ways of communicating and different understandings of how the company operates. I’ve been humbled almost every time I make assumptions and found success when I say things like “Let me make sure I understood you correctly.” and then summarize what I just heard. I know this has helped me be very clear on what needs to get done and exactly how to do it and I’m sure it’s helped other folks in the meeting room as well. It’s also a great way to learn about technologies that might be outside of your domain. Simple questions usually prompt for simple answers, which makes it a great way to learn about complicated technologies or processes - I like to think of these questions as “micro-mentoring”. I think that people also enjoy talking about things they’re experts in. This helps build relationships with coworkers that you might be in meetings with, but never need to actually interact or collaborate.

People often toss around the phrase “It’s not what you know - it’s who you know.” I have always considered this largely about getting access to opportunities via networking - landing a job and the like. However, it’s been much more applicable to getting things done in the job I already have. It’s easy to get lost in emails, meetings, and instant messages. The best problem solving experiences I’ve had at work have consisted of physically walking to someone’s desk (usually a subject matter expert) and talking to them face to face. We can squash the big right there and then. Those solved problems turn into gratitude. Gratitude turns into relationships. It makes sense to me why some people stay at the same company for years on end. They become hubs in a wheel of people and know who to talk to in a large, sprawling, complex organization. I am definitely less worried about becoming a technology wizard (although being competent is critical) and more concerned about knowing the various types of wizards in the company and what kind of problems they can help solve.

Travel seems to be a learning experience by definition. We are often in new places, surrounded by new people and different culture. Although I learned a lot about Australia in my time there, most of what I learned was about myself. Chas and I have never had a close relationship. Our trip together was the first time we’d spent that much time alone together, let alone doing something as exciting as international travel and getting gigantic tattoos. Growing up, Chas and Drake had always been friends. They are much closer in age and it came naturally. Although it sounds morose, I learned that Chas and I are not friends. We’re brothers. Being friends takes something extra. Watching Chas and Drake growing up, I internalized this idea that brothers are friends by default and I’d always experienced some emotional anguish over the fact that Chas and I are not always simpatico. I love Chas unconditionally. He is a wonderful brother and a good friend, just not mine. And that’s okay. The realization was painful, but also reassuring. It’s no longer a mystery why we don’t have an amazing friendship - it takes work! Just knowing and accepting the state and nature of our relationship is a great foundation to build on. It’s helped to reset my expectations. I’m looking forward to building that friendship over the years. We’ll be back in Australia to visit Lance and Kian in the future.

The other thing about travel is that it tends to be expensive. Also, tattoos are expensive. I spent a lot of money on that I didn’t necessarily have at the time. Yes, it was a celebration of starting my career. No, I don’t have regrets. But damn, it took me a long time to get my budget in order. This past year has been a lot to take in with managing my personal finances, especially my student loans. It’s absolutely mind boggling how much money I’m paying in interest. To that end, I’ve become a strict budgeter and financial planner. I’ve managed to pay off all of my credit card debt and I’ve set up an automated budgeting system. At times, it’s been a struggle to adjust to my new habits and lifestyle. I never realized how impulsive of a shopper I really was. If there is something I want to buy, I mark it for a wish list or bookmark and let it sit there for awhile. A week or two later, I’ll find that I end up removing it because I don’t actually need it. Obviously this is a financial boon, but it’s also been gratifying on a personal level. I appreciate what I have. Mostly everything I own is for a reason or purpose. I don’t have a lot of clutter and I’ve become better at letting things go (selling stuff on Craigslist is awesome!) There are still some things that I collect though. I’m currently battling tsundoku, but it’s a war I’m happy to wage. When I’ve won, I plan to become more active at my local library than to buy more books of my wishlists.

When I look back on my relationship, it seems clear to me that I was the root cause of it’s failure, even though I was the one who ended it. It’s been hard to identify and rectify my behavior. I’ve been in relationships where I’ve been cheated on or lied to and it’s made it easy to tell myself stories like “you’re a good guy and you’d never harm the relationship or do anything wrong.” When you say it like that, it’s easy to know it’s a load of crap. People make mistakes. No one is perfect. Relationships are complicated. With my 20/20 hindsight, I think I’ve picked apart some of the behaviors that coalesced into deeper problems. The first is to be impeccable with your word. Often times, I had the best intentions, but was bullheaded about communicating them. I didn’t leave room for discussion or clarification around my decisions. I’m working on thinking before I speak and speaking slowly. Sometimes when we would be having a difficult conversation, my girlfriend would become very quiet and pensive - this always drove me mad. Why won’t you say anything! I know now it’s because she was thinking about what to say. She accepted the full weight of whatever I said and needed to process it and come up with a response that was aligned with her thoughts and emotions. I am striving to become more thoughtful like this. What used to drive me nuts, now fills me with respect and admiration. I don’t operate like this naturally, so it takes a lot of intentionality, but I know it’s worth it.

This idea of slowing down and thinking before I speak carries over into more than just speech. Historically, I’ve been an extremely impulsive decision maker. Sometimes those decisions worked out, sometimes they didn’t, but more often than not I just changed my mind and plans a lot. My friends would always joke when I told them about some new idea or plan. Well, it turns out that spontaneity, while it has its virtues, is not a bedrock. It’s hard to build anything stable or secure on top of it. Part of the reason I failed my relationship is because I had become unmoored. In my own life, independent of my relationship, I was lost and directionless. Of course, I wasn’t being impeccable with my word, so no one knew how radically insecure I’d become. I was crumbling on the inside. This insecurity festered and grew into doubt about my life, my career, what I should be doing, and who I should be with. For awhile, I tried to anchor myself to my girlfriend instead of figuring it out for myself. It is absolutely imperative that you never make another human being your mission or reason. I would not appreciate if someone did that to me - it would make me sad; it’s too much of a burden. We want to respect and admire the ones we love and that’s not possible if they’re dependent on your for meaning. A practical take away from this has been to discuss my plans openly with friends and family. I welcome criticism. I take longer to decide. I write out more pros and cons. By tampering down on being impulsive, it’s helped me feel more secure personally as well as more secure in my relationships. People know what I’m doing and why. I can’t hide my true intentions or motivations if I’m being impeccable with my word.

It’s cliché, but it’s important not to take people for granted. It’s obvious when you’re talking about the end of a relationship, but it can come in other ways too. People can change. The person you you know can be replaced by someone you’ve never met. Mental health is stigmatized in America. We don’t really like to talk about it, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Having experienced mental health issues myself and been in close proximity to others who have struggled has made me want to be much more transparent about my mental health. I want to know that my friends are doing okay. I want them to know that I’m doing okay. I want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay. I want them to know that I’m here for them. Obviously, this is all easier said than done, but I think starting from a place of appreciation makes it easier. I try to take a few minutes and think about how awesome the people in my life are. I’m usually astounded much the amount of compassion, intelligence, talent, and sincerity I’m blessed to be surrounded by. These marvelous people deserve to be put first. It can be painful to realize that you haven’t the foggiest idea what people are going through - even those close to you. Little things can make a big difference. It’s important to slow down as often as we can - be patient, be impeccable with your word, reserve judgement.

When I started to take my mental/emotional health seriously, the same way I take my physical health seriously, I started building habits to improve my health! Shocking, I know. The biggest and bestest thing I’ve done for myself is to start a long-term therapy habit. Currently, I have one hour of therapy every week. I think some people might think that’s a lot (it certainly is if you don’t have health insurance), but spending only 52 hours each year on your mental health sounds ludicrous! Therapy abso-fucking-lutely, positively, utterly amazing. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone and everyone - you don’t need to have a “problem” to get the benefits of therapy. I like to think of it as a class on my emotions. I get to learn about myself each week. Over time, I’ve become better at recognizing my emotions. If you can recognize them, you can regulate them - or at least accept them. I’ve always considered myself relatively high in EQ, but always in regards to other people. I never considered my relationship to myself. Galen, you better still be in therapy when you read this!

The most important thing I’ve learned this year, in all aspects of my life, is to be resilient. No matter what happens, do the next best thing. Sometimes we make mistakes. We may never get the chance to make up for them. The thing you were hoping for may never come to pass. Some terrible, random event may careen into your life. Being able to carry on, being able to forgive ourselves and others, and being able to try again are the only things that truly matter. I will undoubtedly need to learn some of my lessons again. I probably won’t achieve every goal I set for myself. But no matter what happens, I will always have the choice to do the next best thing. This forward movement will help make the dark times lighter and the good times longer. “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.”

Ariana, if you ever read this, I hope you and your family are happy and healthy. I hope you have big dreams and you’re feeding them every day! Keep your chin up.

What Comes Next

I’ve got a lot planned in 2019 - it’s going to be a big year. The catch is that it’s going to be a very slow year and the I don’t expect any of the seeds I’m planting to blossom anytime soon. The biggest goal I’ve set for myself is to tackle my all of my short-term debt (everything except my student loans.) As of today, I’ve already paid off all of my credit cards - woohoo! My long-term vision is to achieve financial independence. I’ve created my budget using a FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) methodology and I’m sticking to it. It’s the first time in my life that I’m focused on a goal that could take 20 years to achieve, but it’s worth it. I cannot imagine living my life any other way. There is nothing that I want more than complete autonomy over my time.

In stark contrast to my FIRE lifestyle, I do want to leave room to enjoy life in the meantime. Right now, that means getting a motorcycle! I’ve been licensed for years, but it’s time to pull the trigger and get one for myself. I’m looking forward to cruising down Lake Shore Drive and taking weekend trips to visit friends and family. I know that the motorcycle is a romantic fantasy for me - but I still want it. I’m currently looking at buying a Triumph Speed Twin.

Where financial independence and motorcycles intersect is my next goal. I am planning to design and build a cargo van that I can live and work out of full-time. I’ve been talking about doing this for over a decade and I figure it’s about high time I start to walk the talk. I know I would regret it if I didn’t at least attempt it. I don’t think I will be able to start these plans in 2019, but I would like to have mapped out all of the financials and the design of the build by the end of the year. I want to be very clear about what my expected costs are. Right now, I imagine myself living in the van for 1-2 years full-time and visiting all the national parks. I’d like to start a hobby of drone photography and the parks would be a dream setting for footage. Afterwards, I could sell the van or keep it - it all depends on what’s going on then! We’ll have to see. For the time being, I’m moving slowly and being thoughtful about the whole process. It may take a few years, but I’ll get there.