Ken Wheeler chats with Kent about saying yes to challenging opportunities and using them as a chance to rapidly grow.
Almost every demo Ken has done at a conference was wildly out of his league technologically. The deadline for the conference pushes him to grow rapidly. Conference-driven development. Elon Musk says, "If it's physically possible, then we can make it happen." Take stock of the situation and ask yourself what the reality of it is, is it possible? If so, then you can accomplish it.
It's not possible to take the second step or even the last step unless you've taken that first step. Finding a simple way to take that first step and just going for it is critical to becoming the person that you want to be.
Even to this day, Ken still is anxious to get on stage, but it's always awesome afterward. Some talks go well, and others don't, but even if it didn't go well, you still went up there and did it. The audience is rooting for you, and despite what you might think, the majority of them don't know the subject of your talk, and the few that do still want you to succeed.
Write down three things that you've been holding back on
Choose one of those things and write down the steps that you can take to accomplish that!
Kent C. Dodds: Hey friends, this is your friend, Kent C.Dodds and I'm joined by my friend, Sir Kenneth Wheeler. Say hi Ken.
Ken Wheeler: Hey, what's up everybody?
Kent C. Dodds: Super happy to have Ken here. Ken, everybody should know who you are and if they don't yet, this is awesome, that they're listening to this, because they're about to get a load of awesomeness.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:00:22] They're going to get put on.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. Ken, can you introduce yourself a little bit? Tell us, not just the technical stuff, but whatever you want to say about yourself.
Ken Wheeler: Sure. I'm Ken Wheeler. I am a UI developer at an unnamed hedge fund.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:00:40] redacted.
Ken Wheeler: Redacted, a hedge fund that I'm not allowed to say the name, but I digress. I'm an electronic musician, a meat enthusiast, a dad to some daughters, also a tank top enthusiast. Okay. I think that wraps it up, right?
Kent C. Dodds: You're a rapper turned coder, right?
Ken Wheeler: That's right. That's right.
Kent C. Dodds: Cool stuff. International speaker, open source library author.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:01:16] I made a couple bad libraries.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. The carousel that you still find on websites all over the place.
Ken Wheeler: That's right. I saw a funny tweet about that the other day; somebody was complaining about carousels without naming them. Then I was like, "My apologies sir."
Kent C. Dodds: That was my bad. Well, you do plenty of hardware; you got your crossbow thing too.
Ken Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah. So I did Arduinos for a while. Everybody just makes the light blink, but I always wanted to build something more than that, so I built the crossbow. With Halloween coming up, I got to come up with a new one, but last Halloween, I took a plastic skull, drilled it out, put LEDs in its eyes and made an animatronic moving skull.
Kent C. Dodds: Okay, awesome fun.
Ken Wheeler: I most recently made a mini controller; an arcade button, mini controller. That was really fun because, a lot of the time, the Arduino stuff isn't wildly complicated. It's actually the whole rest of it, your mech engineering so to say. I got a bunch of enclosures and I tried to make it work and failed magnificently.
Kent C. Dodds: That's the best way to the fail, right? I mean, if you're going to fail, might as well do it magnificently.
Ken Wheeler: I trashed like $100 worth of enclosures. So I was just like, I should 3D print this. Right. And then I did and it were worked out swimmingly. So now I have this 3D printer by me. If you're going to do Arduino and you're going to build real things, it's the only way to do it.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. 3D print, all this stuff. I took my kids to a farmer's market thing and there were these guys there who had 3D-printed a ton of stuff, and that's what they were selling. They had this box of whistles that they printed and they were like, "You can have one of these, but your parents might not want you to. I want you to have these."
Ken Wheeler: Do you have a 3D printer?
Kent C. Dodds: I don't. I've thought about it. I'm not sure what I'd do with it though.
Ken Wheeler: Remember when we were kids and you'd put a quarter in the doors at the food store, and you'd get a spider ring or something like that.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ken Wheeler: That kind of stuff, you can make your kids and it prints in like 10 minutes. So I can just print my kids fun little plastic toys; making rings or articulating sharks or that sort of thing.
Kent C. Dodds: Oh that's cool dude. I feel like I find that stuff all over my house already. It'd just get worse if I got a 3D printer.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:04:05] It's gotten so much worse.
Kent C. Dodds: All of those kid's meal toys and stuff. They're just everywhere.
Ken Wheeler: Buckets and buckets of them.
Kent C. Dodds: Yep. You know, that's parenting. It's good. So if you don't know Ken already, if you don't follow a Ken on Twitter, you're really missing out because Ken has some really down to earth stuff to share. Ken you have a pretty cool backstory of your personal development career and getting involved in open source and speaking and, doing things that gets yourself a little out of your shell. Can you tell a little bit about what motivates you to do things that are uncomfortable?
Ken Wheeler: I'm not a big fan of saying no to things. Generally speaking, if you say yes to things, again, generally speaking, good things happen. It depends on what things you say yes to.
But I think that there's nothing wrong with taking opportunities, right? So if somebody asks you to speak, why wouldn't you? It's an opportunity, right? And that applies to a lot of things, right? I've been asked to speak and was scared about it, but anytime you have something like that, where at work, if they're like, "can we have a volunteer?" I'll do it. If they want you to travel somewhere, or need somebody to lead the team or something, I'm a big fan of just going for it. It usually works out.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. Can you tell us an experience, specifically, of when you were asked to do something at work and you volunteered for it and what the result was?
Ken Wheeler: Yeah, sure. When I, when I came onto the current place, right? They were like, "Hey, do you want to do some internal trainings?" And I was like, "absolutely, what? Are you kidding me?" So my first couple of weeks when I go there, I work remotely, but I work one week from Chicago a month. So I'm in the office one week a month and for a little while every week that I was in, I would schedule a training session.
Surely it had to have been good professionally, but it was also cool cause you get to know everybody a little more. If you just show up and you're dude at desk, you might see your immediate peers around you. But once you're in the room and you're getting people engaged and you're talking to people, they're saying hi to you in the hall and you just spread out a little. So I think that worked out pretty well for me thus far.
Kent C. Dodds: Cool. Yeah. So I think that kind of reaching outside of your comfort zone can have some positive impacts on not only your career but also yourself personally. What would you say to somebody who's like, "Well I'm pretty happy and content with my life. Going to my desk, doing my job, filling out those tickets, and then going home watching Netflix and going to bed. They are struggling to be motivated to do much more than that. What thoughts do you have around that?
Ken Wheeler: If that's what they want to do, then God bless them. Let them do their thing. Right. But if they have aspirations or ambitions, things that they'd like to do, but are, apprehensive about it, don't know where to start, or think it's out of their league. That would be the kind of person that I would tell to go for it.
I'll tell you a quick anecdote, right? So almost every demo that I've ever done at a conference has been wildly out of my league technologically. You're familiar with conference driven development.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:09:00] Oh dude, I do that all the time.
Ken Wheeler: What I'll do is, I'll take something that I want to do. Then I'll, pitch it as the talk, right? Not having thought through how this would become real. Then it forces your hand. That robot crossbow thing, I had no idea, I knew how to do like Arduino, but I had no idea how to mechanically do that. It was a lot of trial and error.
Same thing with that mini controller. Same thing. Very recently I spoke in London and, you know Auto-Tune?
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:09:36] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ken Wheeler: So I wanted to put it in the browser.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:09:40] Nice. Yeah. Cool.
Ken Wheeler: And I didn't even know if it was possible. It is. But what you have to do is you take it and you compile it from seed, a WASM, and then you run it in an Audio Worklet in the browser. We were getting close there for a minute and it was not working. I would come down, the first hour or two of every morning, I'd be down in my office working on it. Like all right, let's see what we can do today. Dah dah dah. I don't know, seed that well, I don't know WASM that well, and I surely don't know Audio Worklets that well.
What I did know is that I wanted Auto-Tune in the browser. I just saw the light at the end of the tunnel was an amazing demo where I could get up there live and just totally be T-Pain. I was like, this has to happen. It's too cool for it not to happen. So I learned enough about each to make it happen and went for it. It worked out and I can't think of a time that it hasn't worked out. It's gotten close. The Auto-Tune was probably the closest did it come. I started the crossbow a little while back. For a little safety buffer but the, the Auto-Tune that was cutting it close. I almost didn't pull that off.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. That's one thing, I've told people that the conference driven development thing is a good idea, but I normally mention that you probably want to make sure the thing you want to do is possible first. There was actually, this one time I wanted to speak at an Angular conference in London, but I couldn't travel.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:12:10] Something that's within vague possibility.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But that conference driven development, I feel like it could be a little anxiety inducing. Did you ever feel that? Were you ever nervous about? Where did you come up with the courage to start proposing conference talks and putting yourself into a potentially anxiety inducing situation?
Ken Wheeler: So I think the first one, my first talk, I just got asked to do and I was like, absolutely, I'll do it. It was a, it was a, it was a local conference and I was terrified.
Even to this day, you know, when I'm up there on stage, I always have this (sigh) yeah, we're really doing this, aren't we? I get up there. I'm like, this was such a better idea. In retrospect.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:13:05] It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Ken Wheeler: Then you just go for it. But it's awesome afterwards. Right? I've had, talks go good and talks go bad, but even if it went poorly, you still got up there and did it.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: Right. There's something to be said for getting up there and doing it. Even if it's not the best talk in the world. I don't think I'll ever give the best talk in the world.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: But you don't need to. You can have it there and do your thing and sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but the good ones are dope. You know, somebody like that was an awesome talk and you know, that's a cool feeling.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, totally. Often the crowds are big enough that somebody in the crowd is going to get something out of it, even if it's just you, but often it's going to be more than just you. It's unlikely that you're talking to a crowd of people who know everything you're going to talk about. Somebody's going to enjoy it. At the end of the day, you're the one who is able to say, yeah, I went up there and talked to people. The 30 people at the meetup or the 300 people at the conference or a thousand people, not all of them can say that they stood up in front of a group of people and, did something awesome. Right.
Ken Wheeler: So what I always tell people is, despite what you might think, the vast majority of people out there don't know the subject that you're talking about. People are always afraid that somebody is going to stand up and call BS on them. Something like that. Which, you know, never happens. Maybe it happened once or twice and the person got thrown out of the conference, but it never happens. So most of these people don't know the subject that you're going to talk about. If they do, they don't know it in the detail that you're about to explain it. On the off chance that a couple people do, they're going to be sitting there rooting for you because that's their jam.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:15:13] Yeah.
Ken Wheeler: So you really can't go wrong.
Kent C. Dodds: Totally. I think we have in our minds that people want us to fail for some reason. I'm not sure why we get that feeling, but I think some of us do sometimes, and I don't know any non jerk in the world who wants you to fail. Anybody who wants you to fail is just absolutely not nice. Not a nice person.
Ken Wheeler: Even people that I don't particularly care for, I don't wish them failure, you know?
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. Especially when you're watching their talk. It's not like I want them to waste my time. Right. You know, I want them to make good use of my time, so I'm rooting for them to do a good job.
Ken Wheeler: Yeah. Let's see what they have to say.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Totally
Ken Wheeler: I have been pleasantly surprised a couple times to be honest.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).Yeah. In yourself too right.
Ken Wheeler: Almost every single time.
Kent C. Dodds: So it's not just speaking or teaching. What are some other areas where you feel like people should go for it and they're not? What do you think is holding people back from just going for whatever it is that they're trying to?
Ken Wheeler: So I think there's two facets to it, right? There's two planes of, of things that you can do it, at least for the purposes of this conversation. That's intellectual and creative, right? So for me, I struggle with the intellectual path, right? Because I could get on a stage and be rapping or something like that and be fine. If I have to get on a stage and be intellectually vulnerable, right? If I get on a stage and I'm rapping, right? No one is like this man is not conjugating his verbs properly, you know? (laughing)
But there's a very real fear when you're up there talking about technology that you're going to be wrong. That there's going to be misinformation, right? Whether it's a bad idea or if you're flat out technically wrong. right. Which is terrifying.
Kent C. Dodds: Right Mm-hmm (affirmative). Totally. I've been there.
Ken Wheeler: Some people are so smart. I remember one time I'm giving this talk and it was this New York, OCaml meetup and I was talking about building React Native apps with reason and one of the main, OCaml guys, Yaron Minsky, he was in the front row. Then the creator of BuckleScript was behind him and then the Reason team were off to the left. I'm like all right, got to keep this one honest. So that's like a scary thing.
Kent C. Dodds: Even like as a maintainer, I can sort of put myself in their shoes. When I see somebody give a talk about react-testing-library or something that I've created and they're going to talk about it. When I'm in that situation, I'm not sitting there leaning back like show me how good you are. Let me pick apart your talk. Instead, I'm looking at it and thinking, I hope that my documentation was good enough and that I did a good job so that this person could learn well enough that they teach it to everybody.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:18:34] That they don't have anything bad to say about it.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. So the maintainers that are, watching your talk they're still rooting for you to do a good job. They want you to create a resource that they can hand to somebody else too.
Ken Wheeler: So the other thing is the creative stuff, right? Which is different. When people do creative things a lot of the time that's an expression of themselves or it's something special to them. So putting that out there and having that available for criticism is also frightening. Whether it's like music,
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: art or something like that, it's a completely different thing.
I might hold something that I've developed creatively a little bit closer than something that I'm speaking about intellectually, right?
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: Like if you wrote a song and then somebody is like this the worst song ever. I'd be like ouch.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Totally.
Ken Wheeler: I think a lot of the apprehension comes from those two setups right there. In both of them you really just got to go for it because there's not that fictional heckler most of the time. Unless you're on Hacker News where I can't make any promises.
Kent C. Dodds: No. Yeah man. Just stay away from Hacker News. That's advice that everybody should follow.
Ken Wheeler: That's the worst thing in general too. I mean as far as like doing those things, right? Take for example, you want to write a blog post, right? A lot of people will see themselves here without a blog post and then they see themselves in the future, with a written published blog post. But it seems like there's so much distance between where you are right now and this lovely finished blog post, my advice there, is to write the first paragraph. That's the hardest thing, right?
When I'm making music, right? I want like a very dank beat. Right. it's a little bit of a journey to a very dank beat. If you're sitting there just lay the drum track, just get it started. Because you have to, you have to take the smallest step. Then it's a series of small steps until here you have a blog post. Here you have a piece of music.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So when you say, "just go for it". The best way you find to do that is; you don't have to break the entire task down to small steps. You think, what's the smallest thing that I can do to get me started?
Ken Wheeler: Yeah. To get it done a little bit easier, this is the thing that I've been doing lately that I think is, it's pretty cool. Have you ever heard of the principles book?
Kent C. Dodds: No, I don't think so.
Ken Wheeler: So this dude, Ray Dalio who runs a hedge fund, not the one that I'm at, but he has this thing called principles, right? It's a book that people read and apply to business and what have you. Things like that. But I did have one main takeaway from that and I've been thinking about a lot lately and that's; whenever you want to do something, the first thing you should do is take stock of the reality of the situation. Identify what's real and true about the situation.
If I want to put auto tune in the browser, right? First of all, is that possible? It's vaguely possible. What does it take to get in there? Right? This is going to need to be WASM. So when you identify what the reality oft he situation is, rather than just being like, "Oh, this is hard, this is impossible, this is going to be tough". What does it actually take to do this right?
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: Then you can start taking the smallest steps. For me it was learning enough C and M scripting to get started.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: I started researching that sort of thing. But that could apply globally to almost anything. If you want to run a marathon, right? If you're not a runner, the first thing that you need to do is take a very long walk.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:23:08] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ken Wheeler: You know, provided there is no physical disability that would not let you run a marathon or something.
Kent C. Dodds: [crosstalk 00:23:15] Sure.
Ken Wheeler: But that would also be taking account of the reality of the situation. Say you were disabled or something, you know you're not going to run it, but you could, wheelchair later or something. You have to work within your actual bounds.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. But being self aware of that I think is important. Whether it's something physical like you mentioned or if it's, you have this super anxious feeling when you're standing up in front of a group of people. So if you really want to get there then you can take smaller steps and stand up in front of a group of, stuffed animals or whatever.
Ken Wheeler: Stuffed animals, you could do it for a peer group, you could go to a local meetup and next thing you know you're at a conference speaking.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).Yeah. And you slowly learn to cope with that situation or whatever it is. You want to start working out but you feel uncomfortable with a groups of other people at the gym. So you find ways to change yourself. I think that's something that I truly believe is that we are malleable people, we're malleable beings. We can change our nature and it's something that takes persistence, time and intentional effort.
Ken Wheeler: You know? It's funny though about all that; speaking or working out, right? Speaking never gets not scary and working out never stops being painful and exhausting. Right? You see people speaking and you're like, "Oh, they're not scared easy". Somebody running down the road you're like, "wow, this guy is, its a breeze for this character". Right.
Kent C. Dodds: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ken Wheeler: But no matter what it is, right? It still sucks. But even at the highest level, it still sucks. You know, they're just, they're just dealing with it magnificently.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, yeah. They, they've trained them, their mind and their body to cope with that so that they can achieve at that level. This reminds me of another thing; people are sometimes amazed when I tell them that I listen to podcasts at three times the speed and they're like, "how do you even understand anything?" I've been listening to podcasts for years and at first it was 1X and then I found out you could speed it up. So I was like 1.5 then 1.75 and two and, and eventually you work your way up and you train your brain, but people who are blind and use screen readers and stuff, they listen to stuff at like 20X.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:25:50] really?
Kent C. Dodds: It's crazy. Yeah. No joke man. Like 14 to 20X like yeah, it's outrageously amazing with what our brains are capable of.
You can, with small and simple steps, you can get yourself to the place that you want to be. I've been getting into Elon Musk a lot recently because he's an inspirational person for me, in some ways. But one thing that he is way into is he says something that everybody says is impossible like, "We're going to go to Mars in a few years or we're going to build an electric car that people are going to buy". People say, "Well, no, you can't do that".
He says, "well, tell me the physics that tells me that's impossible". There's no physics that tells you this is impossible. You're afraid, there's FUD or whatever it is. And so he says, "No, no. If it's physically possible, then we can make it happen". So you break down these big scary things to the physically possible thing that you can do or mentally possible or whatever it is, and work your way to the place that you want to be. But it really comes down to just going for it at the start. You're not going to get there if you don't go for it.
Ken Wheeler: He does that all the time. Right? We're not quite on Mars, but if you look at some of this stuff, these are definitely precursor technologies that are requirements for going to Mars.
You look at Tesla; the battery technology, right? You break it down and take the first step and cover your prerequisites and suddenly it's achievable.
I got to know, are you still afraid when you speak?
Kent C. Dodds: Oh dude. Are you kidding? Yeah, I've gotten a lot more comfortable leading up to it, but especially when the speaking comes up close, the day of especially, or maybe the day before, I start breathing heavier, when I'm thinking about it and then especially minutes up before I get up there and I'm seeing people gather or whatever. I feel really, really fight or flight but I get up there and once I start, once I say, "Hey, my name is Kent C. Dodds and I'm here to talk about X", you just say your name.
Ken Wheeler: [crosstalk 00:28:20] Yeah, totally.
Kent C. Dodds: Then you're like, okay, I'm good. There have been times where, even during the talk, I still feel uncomfortable. I've kind of worked my way out of that mostly, unless things aren't going very well.
Ken Wheeler: That's the worst. When you get popped out of your groove, like there's like an AV issue or something and just try to go like that. Then your whole momentum was shattered.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. But that's another thing that over time, you learn to cope with that stuff too. So if there's something that you want to do, you just go for it in the small step where you get started on the path.
This reminds me of a, there's a book by Brandon Sanderson called oath bringer, and in it, this guy, I wonder if it's the first one, but it's the Stormlight Archive trilogy. But there's this character in there who is asked the question, "What's the most important step a man can take?" That question is kind of hanging out there, the whole book. Then toward the end he says the most important step a man can take as the first step.
Ken Wheeler: [foreign language 00:00:29:46] True story.
Kent C. Dodds: I think that applies to what we're talking about here is. It's not possible to take the second step or even the last step unless you've taken that first step. Finding a simple way to take that first step and just going for it is critical to becoming the person that you want to be.
Ken Wheeler: True story.
Kent C. Dodds: So cool. We're down on our time here, Ken. It was awesome to chat with you. Is there anything else that you want to talk about before we wrap things up?
Ken Wheeler: No, dude, it was awesome. Thank you for having me.
Kent C. Dodds: Dude. It's a pleasure. I always love chatting with you. I'm super sad we're not going to actually see each other for, I don't even know how long you're going to have.
Ken Wheeler: You're going to have a little fun at React Rally for me, right?
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. It's going to be a blast. So at the time we were recording this, React Rally is in two days. This will probably be published in I don't know, a month, maybe a year or two. But yeah, it was fun. I'm sure.
So here, just as we wrap up here, here's the homework or the call to action for everybody listening, where we want you to do something to improve yourself technically or personally or whatever.
So here's what we want you to take out a piece of paper and write down three things you've been holding yourself back from; whether it be fear or just feeling inadequate or whatever that is. Choose one of those three things that you've written down and then write down the steps that you can take to accomplish that. Maybe just write down the first step and then go make that happen.
Ken Wheeler: Go for it.
Kent C. Dodds: Go for it. Cool. All right man. Well thanks so much. It's been a pleasure. Where can people find you online, Ken?
Ken Wheeler: You can find me @ santacloud.com forward slash the Ken wheeler.
Kent C. Dodds: Boo-yah no, legit people go, listen. Ken's got some sweet music. I even use Ken's music for my dev tips with Kent series on YouTube. It's great. So yeah, go listen to Ken stuff.
Ken Wheeler: It's Ken_Wheeler on Twitter. But don't open that in front of kids.
Kent C. Dodds: It's not safe for work.
Ken Wheeler: That's not safe for life.
Kent C. Dodds: Cool. All right. Hey, thanks, Ken. It was awesome. For everybody else, we'll see y'all later,
Ken Wheeler: Later. Alligators.