The Sorrows and Joys of the Bulldozer

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Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar (flickr: vinothchandar)

We hear a lot of hype about ideas. “Ideas can change the world”.  Right.

“Ideas can move mountains”. Ideas don’t move mountains, Peter Drucker reminds us, bulldozers do.  Ideas just tell the bulldozers where to go.

Know what this means?  I’ll tell you:

Do you fancy yourself a bulldozer? You’d better.

If you have a lot of goals, there’s a good chance that– like me– you’re an “ideas person“.  Your notion of the perfect job is to sit back and do nothing but come up with all the next brilliant ideas in your chosen field.  You love discussing, debating, and especially thinking of new ideas.  You place a high premium on interesting.

There’s a problem with that, though.  Ideas are cheap.  Worthless, almost.  What’s your most ambitious goal?  Oh, to start your own business?  That’s cute!  Do you know how many Read More

A Personal Note

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A few days after writing one of the first articles I posted here, I flew back to Chicago to see my mom, who was sick and in the hospital with cancer.  This was not a new development.  After her first bout with cancer, it appeared again six short months later.  At this point, she was in the hospital more than she was out of it, and things were looking worse then ever.  Far worse.

It was one of those “take the next flight out” situations, and I did.  About 12 hours after I arrived, she took her last breath.  And that was a year ago today.

* * *

Perhaps the most striking thing in the last years of my mom’s life was her decision to earn her undergraduate degree (which she never got while young).  She spent the last few years of her life in classrooms with students her childrens’ age, and at the end of those years, walked across the stage as the top student in the Communications Department.

Her first battle against cancer came shortly thereafter, but she was hardly off chemo before she was sending applications to grad schools.  I was impressed and proud.  Unfortunately, she was not a month into her classes when she had to email her professors to take some time off– the cancer was back.

Frankly, I have no idea what it’s like to tell your boss you’re taking time off to suffer through a life-threatening disease.  She did.  I have no idea what it’s like to pick out your gravesite.  She knows.  Designing your own tombstone?  Amateur artist to the last, my mom sure did. Read More

What I Learned at the World Domination Summit

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The World Domination Summit lobby. Photo credit: Armosa Studios

This weekend, I travelled down to Portland, Oregon for the second ever World Domination Summit.  This event has always been a bit of a challenge to try and describe.  ”The World what!?” most people ask.  Here we go again…  It’s basically a convention for people who are into micro-entrepreneurship, life-hacking, and travel.  It is a crap-ton of fun, and I got to meet a lot of people and learn some cool stuff.

This post is a bit different from my regular ones.  I want to tell you about what I learned this weekend– and also why I don’t think I’ll be going back next year.

 

Lessons from WDS

When you can’t be vulnerable, joy is foreboding.  The opening talk at the conference was on vulnerability.  Yes, we had to sing at our neighbor and dance in the aisle.  But it wasn’t kindergarten all over again.  The speaker was Brene Brown– and in case there’s any confusion, I mean the Brene Brown with one of the most watched TED Talks of all time.  And yup, she had some serious bombs to drop on us.

This one in particular stuck with me.  It’s about vulnerability and joy.

Vulnerability is tough.  Being yourself when everyone else expects something different?  That’s not as glamorous as it seems.  It’s all sweaty palms and worrying what people will think.  But the alternative is having your soul crushed and being false to yourself, so it’s worthwhile.

And beyond that, it’s necessary.  Life is uncertain.  You aren’t in charge here.  That’s vulnerability right there.  And tell me, how does it strike you knowing tomorrow you could be dodgin’ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  I don’t know, but if it doesn’t strike you so well, Brene Brown wants you to get over it.  If you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t live.

Does that make sense?  If you can’t be vulnerable, every peak is just something you could fall off of.  Regression to the mean and gravity are teaming up to ruin your day.  And Brene talked about just that.  She was on a long-overdue date night with her husband, walking back from dinner through the park on a summer night, when visions of masked muggers Read More

Volcanoes and Ancient Philosophy

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A panorama from Disappointment Cleaver

The weekend before last, I tried to achieve a life goal of mine– #21, Climb Mt. Rainier.  I didn’t.

Here’s what happened.

On the night before we started climbing, everything looked good.  I had been training for months.  Practice climbs, classes, reading mountaineering guides in my free time.  The usual.  I had a team I trusted and liked.  We were all in shape, healthy, and eager to go.  Our bags were packed, gear checked, double-checked, and we even left on time.  Most fortuitously, after we reached base camp on the first afternoon, the rangers said that even though there was some avalanche danger, they were optimistic about the weather– a gift, given five days of storms, high winds, fresh snow, and no one summiting.

Unfortunately, neither did we.

One the second day of climbing, everyone gets up between midnight and 5 AM to try and reach the summit and make it back to base camp before the heat of the day and the weather changes.  We were on the trail by 2:30 AM.  I’m not a morning person, but I wake easy for alpine starts.  We set out across the Cowlitz glacier up towards the imposing Cathedral pass in the dark of night.

A few hours later, we were nearing the base of a giant rock formation that splits two glaciers– the Disappointment Cleaver.  One group– some firefighters from Seattle– had been ahead of us the whole time, and as we crossed the snowfield to the cleaver, we watched their headlamps bobbing up, and then, down the side of the cleaver. We met them at the base– the bottom of the lower part of the rock, on a 45-degree snowfield that bottoms out a few hundred feet below into an enormous crevasse.  It wasn’t the sort of place you’d normally want to spend more time than necessary, but the other group had kicked out little seats for themselves in the snow and were resting up. “How was it up there?”

“Eh, no way up.  You can try; we’ve got no idea.”

I looked up.  They pointed a way not to go.  ”Well maybe I could try below that shelf.  How long are you guys going to be here?”

“Dunno.  We don’t know if we’re going to make it up there.  And here is where the rangers said there was avalanche danger.  Not sure we’d want to be coming through this mid-morning.”

Oh yeah.  Avalanche danger. Read More

5 Bold Rules for Journaling

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Photo credit: Lucia Whittaker (flickr: angelic0devil6)

When my great-grandmother passed away, our family sifted through her house, sorting through all the things we would pass on or give away or throw out.  Somewhere in that fray, someone found and moved to my grandparents’ attic a poorly-bound book with a faded cover.  I don’t remember where I found this book– whether I was hunting around that attic or whether an aunt passed it along to me.  All I remember is my incredible curiosity upon first holding it in my hands and reading the title.

I was looking at a book of poetry composed by my great-grandmother.

The first poems were written when she was a girl.  They were almost a century old.  They described life on the Kansas farm, nature, family, etc.  She described the first time she saw a car– not because cars were rare where she lived, but because they were rare everywhere.  Mass-produced cars had just been invented.  Later on, she becomes a mother.  One poem is a prayer her daughter doesn’t drive too fast down those country roads.

It took me a minute to realize that one particular poem about a new baby David in the family was actually about the birth of my dad.

Here’s a surprising thing:  These poems– they were not good, per se.  There is in none of them any astounding amount of literary merit.  But I treasure them like nothing else, because I can’t help but be attached to this young woman, maybe about my own age, sitting in the shade of an elm tree and writing poems about the Kansas summer.  I am part of what she left on this planet, and these poems are another, and it all feels a bit like I’ve found a long-lost sibling.

* * *

I have told a number of my closer friends that when I die, they are welcome to take my computer, figure out all my passwords, and go through the hard drive or whatever online accounts they can hack into.  Should they choose to do this, perhaps the file that will be the most interesting (certainly the longest) is my journal– or, more appropriately, set of journals.

Almost every day since I graduated college, I’ve written in my journal.  It’s become a gargantuan undertaking– every few month’s I’m producing a novel’s worth of narration.  But I would say without hesitation that journaling is one of the most worthwhile habits I hold, and I fully intend to keep it up until I die. Read More

You Should Have Regrets (Suggestions Included)

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There are some very special people in this world that take a certain pride in saying they live with no regrets.

No regrets?  Really?  None?

Did you never make a mistake in your life?

Or you did, but you don’t regret it.  Why not?  Is it because you lack the spine to condemn yourself for making a mistake, or for some other reason?  Ahhh, I know: it is because you learned from it.  But now wouldn’t it have been better simply to have done the correct thing from the beginning?  I believe it’s called “Not making a mistake”.  As I view it, not making a mistake is always better than making a mistake.  The whole point of this learning you glorify is to prevent you from making mistakes.

But you persist, because you are (like I said) special and living in a culture that glorifies mistakes like they are an end in and of themselves.  So now you perceive a romantic value in your past shortcomings.  It’s not regrettable, it’s beautiful, you say.  Yes, you are the hero of your own story, a story in which the protagonist is modern and complex and flawed.  And you have no desire to change it.

No!  Education is a lot less thrilling to someone who knows what is true.

* * *

I live with regrets.  I regret, first and foremost, every wrong I have done to others, treating them as if they were less valuable or of less worth than myself (perhaps not every, but I try).  Second, I regret the myriad of times I’ve failed to take and fulfill good opportunities by my own laziness, fear, or lack of clarity in what I’m doing.  I think we are tempted to look at these past failings as inevitable. Whoops!  I didn’t know better– couldn’t’a helped it!

But let’s be honest.  Look at the challenges you’ll face and the opportunities spread before you.  Are you doing your best to take them head on?  I know that daily, I certainly let distractions and laziness get in the way of what’s really important to me, and I know that I have a chance to do something about these things.  Sometimes I don’t take that opportunity, and I have nothing and no one to blame but myself.

So why’s the past any different?

* * *

In a news article that’s been making the social media rounds lately, one nurse who worked in palliative care records what she’s tallied up as the top five most common regrets of the dying.  At first glance, they seem pretty typical, and you can probably skim to the bottom of the page without an inconvenient amount of soul-searching.  Let’s see, “courage to live true to myself”, yup, yup, “most common regret of all”, OK, “most people hadn’t honored even half their dreams and had to die knowing it was due to the choices they made or didn’t make”– wait, what!?

You’re on your death bed and you didn’t do half the things you wanted?  That’s downright depressing.  I’m assuming we’re not talking about “I want to sail around the world on my private yacht… made of gold” sort of dreams.  Nope, I think we’re talking about people who wanted to grow gardens, earn degrees, learn to ski, write letters to their friends, and, in other down-to-earth ways, push themselves beyond the drudgery of a perfectly crystalline schedule.

And they didn’t do half of those things!

This is why I am OK living with regrets, and indeed, the only reason you should have them– so that you do better next time.  Indeed, if you don’t let your regrets change you for the better, what can you boast over the blissfully unreflective who death steals like a thief in the night, only to find there’s depressingly little to plunder?  Realize you’ve made mistakes, and realize you can do something about it.  Live the life you want.  Start tonight.  You haven’t always done the best, but you can do better.

Regret now so you don’t regret later.

Stop Reading Books about Heaven

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Photo credit: Thomas Hawk (flickr: thomashawk)

A perhaps apocryphal New Yorker cartoon depicts a man looking confused standing before two doors.  One is labeled “Heaven” and the other is labelled “Books about Heaven”.

When I heard about this comic for the first time, it scared me just a bit– because my first reaction was “Ooh!  Books about heaven!”

There’s something wrong with that reaction.  If heaven is the place of ultimate happiness– the best possible experience you can have– what does it mean that some part of me deep down is more intrigued by words on a page describing this place?

 * * *

The Internet is a dangerous place.  It’s especially dangerous for those who want to do things with their life.  You can now pick almost any endeavor or accomplishment and read about it until you die.  Info porn.

You may notice that I’ve encouraged you to stop reading if you’re going to go do something awesome instead.  I stand by that.  The perfect situation: no one reads any of this because they’re too busy accomplishing their pacts with life.

In a way, reading about awesome things is a substitute for experiencing and doing awesome things.  And for me at least, I don’t want it to be that way.  That’s called white-collar failure and it needs to be fought.   Read More

2012: Eurisk

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Photo credit: John A. Ryan (flickr: insightimaging)

As I’ve said before, I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions.

If you’re going to reform your life, don’t wait until Jan 1 to do it.  People do, and they wonder why they fail year after year.

But in the spirit of looking forward on the next 12 months, I want to share my theme for 2012.

While not quite a goal, it’s a philosophy I want to adopt that encompasses a lot of the work I do on my goals this year.  I tried to find a single word to encapsulate the idea, but as one doesn’t exist, I had to make it up: eurisk.

Allow me to explain.

I got the idea from the word stress.

When people talk about stress, they’re usually talking about a bad thing– the stress of an upcoming violin recital, the stress of parents divorcing.  Psychologists, clever folks that they are, realized this one word stress actually meant two pretty separate things:

  1. Stress that causes us achieve things or perform well, called eustress (or “good stress”)
  2. Stress that doesn’t cause any good things, called distress (or “bad stress”)

When you think about your performance tomorrow and your palms start sweating and you want to throw up, that’s your body diverting what resources it can in the effort to make sure you don’t miss a beat.  And guess what– you’ll practice really hard and then at the concert, you’ll rip out a beautiful Bach partita with ear-melting arpeggios Read More

[How-to] On Learning to Unicycle

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Photo credit: Stefano Corso (flickr: pensiero)

This is an essay on learning how to unicycle.  It’s more philosophy than how-to guide, so be forewarned/get excited.

(i) A Thousand Falls

The simplest advice I can give to learn how to ride a unicycle is this: fall off a unicycle a thousand times.

Of course, there’s a bit more technique to it, but this is the gist.  Fall off, get on, try again.  Repeat ten-hundred times.

I, like most people I know, learned how to ride a bike at a very young age.  And although I don’t remember the specifics, I’d imagine I fell off hundreds of times before I got it quite right.  That’s quite a few skinned knees.  Yet I have zero recollection of it.

But that’s the nature of kids, isn’t it?  They dive in with confidence and just keep trying.  Setbacks fade fast.

I think we forget that as we grow older.  No longer do we forget failure with such alacrity.  We’re a little less bold in how we approach our endeavors.  But I accidentally found a blast from that past, and it has one wheel and a seat.  Never since childhood have I failed so frequently at something and kept going.

And never has it felt so great to finally learn!  Finally being able to balance is great, but even the process leading up to it is exciting.  Your progress isn’t linear, so the entire process is you improving slowly, but also in leaps in bounds.  You’ll spend a few hours of unicycling time going just inches before bailing.  Then you’ll upgrade to feet.  Later, you’ll clear ten feet.  And a few days after that, a hundred.  And then you’ve got it.  At some point, you just stop falling off.  Crap, it feels wonderful.

(ii) Blue-Collar Failures

One thing that stuck out to me about falling off a unicycle was that it was a pretty objective measure of failure.

And we don’t have that a lot.  Or at least, I don’t.

In a lot of projects I work on, motivated waxes and wanes; excitement fades away, and perfectly good ideas are never brought to glorious execution.  It’s easy to rationalize these abandoned dreams.  Failure becomes less tangible.  It looks less like defeat and more like procrastination.  It’s not a knock-out blow to the head; it’s a dull sense of regret and a light flurry of rationalized excuses. Read More

The Great War for Your Short, Short Time on Earth

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Photo credit: Chris Smith (flickr: cjsmithphotography)

If you ever undertake some project, goal, or quest that requires a serious commitment of time, there will undoubtedly be some point during your journey where you will pause to reflect and find that you’d rather do anything that what you’re doing.  “Pluck my eyes out.  If I can’t see, I don’t have to finish writing my novel.”

Good for you.  That means you’re doing something worthwhile.  The only reason you made this much progress is because you knew it would pay off in the end.  It’s awfully inconvenient now– heck, you’d rather be blind– but keep dreaming about the finish line, because if you got you into this mess, it can get you out.

And that’s what I want to talk about now– why you got into this mess.

You did it because you thought it would be worthwhile.  Not easy, but worthwhile.  And now that it’s living up to your expectations, you’re taking some time to reflect.  And potentially gauge your eyes out.

Here’s something I think.  I think it with all of my heart:

Never, ever evaluate Read More