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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

How to Fix and Avoid Burnout

Burnout sucks. I'm not talking about that "I can't wait for the weekend" feeling or even the glazed-eye look you gave your parents when returning home from finals week during college. When I refer to burnout, I mean the structural depletion of energy which makes it nearly impossible to raise your head and get real work done. It's a poison that seeps into and sucks the life out of every working minute.

In startup culture, we glorify working ourselves to death in a way which is completely absurd and totally self-imposed. Along my own 5 year rollercoaster building Viking Education, I became intimately familiar with the feeling of burnout. I distinctly remember the numb progression through checklists of tasks that had become divorced of any meaning and putting on a smiling facade which overlaid an inner me who had long since stopped bothering to panic at his lack of excitement for work.

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Startup Depression and the Search for Meaning

TLDR: I actually expected to get depressed, it still surprised me when it finally happened and I'm rather suspicious of its apparent resolution.

A few weeks ago, I couldn't focus, get stuff done, or even remember simple things. Work felt purposeless. Relationships seemed shallow and fleeting. I couldn't get more than nominally excited about things I'd normally jump to do. I felt like a ship drifting without an anchor, unable to latch onto anything for stability despite the supposed familiarity of the surrounding landmarks. All the usual ways I might find comfort -- leaning on community, taking pleasure in the challenge of work, experiencing the wonder of the outdoors -- were bereft of their power.

It sucked and it had been building for months.

For the last couple of years, I've kept a wary eye on my mental health. You probably know that I'm an incessantly optimistic ball of energy, particularly when you're still groggy from lack of coffee in the morning. I have a high natural frequency and, for the last several years, I've chased the high-energy thrill of starting a business with reckless abandon. At the same time, I've also been keenly aware of the phenomenon of "Startup Depression". I've seen a number of friends spiral, sometimes for many months, through deep bouts of depression that seem to counterbalance their otherwise ebullient energy.

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Startup Addiction

My work/life balance sucks.

I plan my weekends off like you'd normally plan vacations because they occur with roughly the same frequency. I don't get to see my family or friends nearly as much as I'd like and when I do it's often in a very timeboxed fashion that doesn't leave enough room for serendipity. I've seen our coworking space at all hours of the day and night and share a special connection with the handful of others who regularly do the same. I have a growing list of hobbies and events that I want to do or try that never gets any shorter. I suck at spontaneity now. I started booking meetings 5 minutes shorter just so I'd have time to run to the restroom or grab a bite between them.

This typically looks like a recipe for a painfully sad existence.

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A Quick Preview of the Viking Code School

It's been some time since I had 10 minutes free to write. Well, that's not true... by my count, I've written over 800 pages of text and recorded dozens of hours of video in the last 4 months but that's exactly the problem. There's not a lot of room in the margins for creative expression when you're teaching a cohort of students, writing curriculum, managing a team, growing a business and trying to learn how coffee works.

The Viking Code School is the full consumption of my soul right now and rightly so. I'll give it far more just treatment when I'm able but, for now, suffice it to say that it represents the marriage of 2 years of hard work with a lifetime of dreaming about making impactful changes in education.

We're building a highly focused online coding bootcamp that's the first of its kind -- it combines the rigorous and collaborative nature of an in-person bootcamp with the reach of the online medium. We're educating prospective developers and entrepreneurs who want to take their ideas to reality.

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Entrepreneurial Epiphanies #4: Do Nothing Quietly

Since I struck out on my own to build a business, I've banged my head on countless metaphorical low-hanging beams, taken the proverbial rake to the face at least weekly, and otherwise made just about every mistake in the book. But, despite the cost, I've actually learned a thing or two along the way. Hopefully you won't make the same mistakes. Actually, you will, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Last Tuesday we launched beta for The Odin Project, a website where you can learn web development for free. The launch went well -- to focus solely on users, we got >10k visits converting to >1k new students in just two days -- and it hammered in an epiphany that I first had in September of 2013: Do nothing quietly!

There are a lot of expressions out there which capture pieces of this mentality, like "Fail early and often", but I like the directness of "Do nothing quietly". This is very counter to the mantra of the engineer: "head down, get shit done". Engineering culture has little love for self promotion, bold (unsupported) claims or anything to do with PR. But, to build an effective business, you've got to get over it and make sure people know about your idea.

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The Odin Project

It's been some time since I last got the chance to put down some words here and it's not for lack of anything to say. I've been incredibly busy over the past few months putting together what has been a devilishly interesting and intense project. I left my position at App Academy in May to do so full time.

The Odin Project is an attempt to put my efforts where my mouth is... a chance to try and make a meaningful impact in online education. The goal of the project is to educate developers from absolute beginner to employable using the same project-based and pair-oriented methodology that proved so effective in my own education. It is based around an open-source curriculum that leverages as much existing content as possible to get from A to B.

Building out the curriculum and the tools to help students pair together has been a herculean task so far but traction is picking up and I'm running a regular class based on what I've put together. It's incredibly exciting to see the project so far help real people take a meaningful step forward in their own education. I'm also beginning to get interest from other developers in the community, which has opened up some great dialogues around the project.

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Startup Advice from Michael Hartl

Friday at App Academy we had a surprise visit from Michael Hartl, author of the now-famous Ruby on Rails Tutorial. Interestingly, the conversation tracked a wide range of topics that leaned more to the entrepreneurial than the development side of things. Michael himself admitted that he's probably not the right person to ask many beginner questions to, since he has very little personal experience being a beginner or dealing directly with their issues.

Instead, we tried to get a better sense of the steps that led to the tutorial's creation and his advice for the day when we might put our newfound skills to use in startups of our own. Michael, after a narrow miss with a lifetime in academia, got into programming and landed in Y Combinator working on an open-source social network called Insoshi. As he put it, they just kind of pulled it together at the last minute to get something ready for Demo Day and it was surprisingly well received before the financial world ground to a halt in fall of 2008 and they couldn't secure funding to continue.

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My $100 Million Idea

I love catching the wave of a new idea. It's happened to me many many times in the past few months and each one is somewhat akin to a religious experience. I think every entrepreneur in the world knows the feeling I'm talking about. In fact, one of those idea waves at the beginning of the year was what finally convinced me to pursue entrepreneurship for real. This is not the story of that idea. That particular gem, a user-generated brand advocacy platform, didn't make it far out of the gate.

Some of my big ideas hit me in the morning and I can't even sit down for breakfast without first tearing through four pages of frantic notes. It is sudden and intense. The idea I'll get into here, though, actually resulted from many little discouragements along the way as I tried to follow up on those other bursts of AM inspiration.

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Austin Startup Weekend

Day 1

On a sunny Friday afternoon in late March I threw my suitcase and a bicycle into my trunk and trekked the 3 hours to Austin for an event called Startup Weekend. I'd heard about it in Houston just a couple weeks too late but everyone I spoke with evangelized the experience so I vowed to catch the next one I could. I didn't really have a clue what to expect, but I came with an open mind and a lot of curiosity. The idea of a whole weekend focused intensely on startups was just what the doctor ordered after I quit my job to dive into that world.

I was one of the first to arrive at the HubAustin Coworking space a few miles south of downtown and got the chance to see all the participants as they pulled in to register. There was the bubbly businesswoman from Dallas with a big Texas smile, the two local undergrads hungry to make an impact, a former salesman from Louisiana who'd packed up his car for a one-way trip and the SW veteran who'd flown in from Oklahoma for his fourth try. They came wearing everything from the flip-flops and shorts typical of Austin to the blazers and slacks of more traditional business professionals. The only common theme was a certain nervous excitement and contagious energy.

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