Two Things

Every day, do two things you don’t, strictly speaking, have to do.

Make one of them a challenging thing, and make one of them an easy or even self-indulgent thing.

The challenging thing can be a more intense workout than the day before, or writing a chapter of a book, or fixing up your website, or doing your taxes, or searching for a new job.

The easy thing can be reading a chapter of a book, organizing your desk, throwing away something you’ve been meaning to get rid of, or calling an old friend to say hello.

Obviously, what counts as “challenging” and “easy” will vary from person to person, but the goal is to make it a point to do something deliberately outside of your routine at least twice a day. One challenging thing so you get the reward of accomplishing a goal, and one easy thing so you can train your mind to not have to go into “full stress” mode just to get something done.

This is my new initiative. It’s so easy for people to fall into “maintenance mode” where all they do each day are the things they absolutely have to, followed by as much “nothing” as they can fit in. Even ambitious and non-lazy people can often just fill their day with more and more “maintenance” activities to the point where they’re never idle (good) but also never deliberate (bad).

Two things per day. You and me, friend. We can do it.

Rest

It’s good to take a day to rest once in a while. I don’t do that often. Even the restful days so easily fill with little chores and responsibilities that it can be hard to find that time to just let your mind be still.

I’m going to go try to do that now. I’ll see you tomorrow, my friend.

Sensitivity

There was a guy I went to middle/high school with, I’ll just call him “Steve” for this story. Steve was a great guy, and we were pretty close. We hung out a lot in those days. Steve was also an (as the kids these days say) “absolute unit.” He was huge. He was about 6′ 7″, maybe 6′ 8″, and he’d been that way since 5th grade. I don’t know his exact weight, but it was definitely north of 350. Not fat, either – the dude was just BIG. Imagine a guy that size in your fifth grade class. He was just an early grower, had a full beard in middle school, that kind of guy. And he definitely had the strength to match – when we were in high school my father accidentally left a U-Haul moving truck he had rented in neutral and it started to roll down our street, and Steve just ran ahead of it and stopped it with his hands. I watched him put an ax halfway into an 8-inch diameter tree in one swing, and then break the tree in half the rest of the way with his hands. I could tell a lot of stories about this guy, but the point is just so you know the kind of titan he was.

He was also, however, extremely shy and timid. In high school the football coaches begged him to play, but he always refused. He would shy away from any conflict at all, and in fact on more than one occasion he would be bullied pretty severely and the rest of us (none even half his match in size or strength) had to come in and help.

I asked him why. He told me that when he was in fourth grade, some kids were bullying him because he was different, and they were being really physical about it – pelting him with things, screaming taunts, knocking his books down, etc. They had him cornered and so he hit one of them. But the bully was a fourth-grader, and it was like being hit in the face by a full-grown man. The kid got really hurt, broken bones, had to go to the hospital. Though he was eventually fine, Steve had the world come down around him. Everyone from his parents to the school all told him not just that he had reacted poorly or that he should have done something differently, but that he was fundamentally a bad kid. That he was dangerous. There was talk of transferring him to a different school where they put violent kids with behavioral issues (he managed to just barely dodge that bullet).

Ever since, he’d been terrified of his own strength. He walked down the hallways with his shoulders hunched together, like he was afraid to even brush up against anyone. He was fine with sports like weightlifting, but the thought of using his strength in a sport that put it against other people like football was horrifying to him – he was certain he’d kill someone the first time he went on the field.

I used to think about that a lot and be furious at the injustice of it all. Here was Steve, who was by all accounts one of the sweetest and kindest people I’d ever met. He was a great friend and other than that one bit of defensive violence in the fourth grade had never raised a hand in anger, even in his own defense. And he managed all that at an age where most people are horrible little hormone-raged monsters, and he was a zen monk.

I can still sometimes be mad about the injustice visited on Steve, but the reality is that I was too focused on being mad for my friend, and not focused enough on the lesson I should have taken for myself.

My personality is a lot like Steve’s physical frame. My personality is BIG. I’m loud and gregarious and grandiose. In the right context, it can be charming – put a bunch of friends on a camping trip and I’m the life of the party. But there are a lot of contexts where it’s downright dangerous.

It’s easy for me to make people uncomfortable, even if that’s never my intent. It’s easy for me to just be so loud and so overly familiar that I intimidate people into not speaking up, or offend them, or not take their perspective into account.

There are things I try to do, things I’ve learned to do over the years, to counter those natural tendencies, the same way Steve learned to walk with his shoulders in. I’m never the first person to talk in a meeting. I never initiate physical contact – I never go in for the handshake or the hug, I let the other person, just in case. I solicit private feedback often as a temperature check for how my behavior has been affecting them or others.

But it’s a journey, and I don’t have it all figured out yet. I might not ever. I just try to improve. Because it’s not unjust at all for me to have to alter my behavior to protect people from my words and thoughts and actions – it might not be my fault that my personality is just bigger than the world was designed for, but it is my responsibility. Twenty years ago Steve understood this better than I probably ever will.

People won’t always tell you that you hurt them. Especially when it’s not physical, and there’s no bruises to see. More likely than not, they’ll just walk away from you or cut ties, and one door after another will close and you might not ever know why. I am eternally appreciative of the few that take the time and effort to look me in the eyes and say “ouch.”

And I am sincerely trying to be better. That’s all I can offer.

Doors and Windows

I normally dislike folksy truisms, but one in particular that I do enjoy is “God never closes a door without opening a window.”

Tangent #1: Priming

Have you ever heard a new word, and then suddenly you hear it *everywhere?* The reason for that is the psychological effect called “priming.” Basically, you actually always heard that word at roughly the same frequency, but your brain wasn’t trained to listen for it, so it was filtered out as sensory noise, which is what happens to 99% of the sensory inputs that bombard you every day. You’d go crazy otherwise. Has anyone ever reminded you that you can feel your tongue inside your mouth? Ha, now you can’t get rid of it, can you?

The feeling of your tongue inside your mouth or how your socks feel against the soles of your feet or the sound of your refrigerator compressor or the sight of the tree outside your window moving in the wind are all things that your brain filters out. But when you get a reminder to pay attention to certain things, your brain (at least for a while) separates that particular thing from the noise. So instead of the word “eschew” fading into the background noise like it always does, your brain grabs it and shoves it into your consciousness and says “Hey, weren’t you just thinking about this? I grabbed random signals and connected them to the active neurons! You’re welcome!”

Tangent #2: Roses

“Stop and smell the roses,” is often advice given with the intended meaning of “hey, slow down your hectic life for a little bit and enjoy the simple experiences that make you happy.” And that’s not bad advice. But to me, “Stop and smell the roses” has a different meaning, one I like even better. Which is: “Remember, there are roses.”

You passed those roses every day walking from your car to the office. They never weren’t there. But you missed them, because they were background noise. Maybe you don’t even like roses, but the reminder is important, because there are *lots* of things buried in that background noise that you don’t notice unless you make a conscious effort to stop, look around, and see what you don’t see. Or smell what you don’t smell.

Okay, back to Doors and Windows.

See, it’s not that God deliberately closes doors and opens windows simultaneously. The reason that it can seem like every time an opportunity closes to you another one opens is because there was *always* another opportunity opening. They’re opening all the time. But most of the time, you’re absorbed in your life and your brain is taking all the signs of those opportunities and filtering them out as noise, and having a door slammed in your face is the equivalent of life saying “Hey, remember that you can feel your own tongue!” Or to stop and smell the roses. It reminds you to look around and see what you didn’t see, which was that there was always an opportunity.

In the words of one of the 20th Century’s greatest philosophers:

“Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

Stand and Deliver

Sometimes you just have to deliver something. When you’re trying to move the needle on a project, any progress is good, even if it falls far short of the ideal.

If you make a commitment to do 50 sit-ups every day, there will sometimes be days where things just get away from you and you don’t make it. But on those days, doing 10 situps, or five, or even just one is so much better than doing none.

The threshold from 0 of anything to 1 of that thing is way more intense than the distance between 1 and 100. If you do 1 sit-up today, tomorrow you’ll do 2 or 10 or 50. But if you do zero today, you’ll do zero tomorrow.

It’s okay to do a little instead of a lot some days. But don’t do zero. Deliver something, even if just to yourself.

Listening

I like to do a lot of listening.

I love people. Anything they think is cool, I think is cool. I love when people are passionate about things, especially when they’re willing to share that passion with me. One of my favorite things in the world is when someone “geeks out” about something at me. Especially if it’s something I don’t know anything about! There’s a certain kind of exuberance that only comes from sharing your weird, unusual or unique interest with someone who knows nothing about it. I like to give people the opportunity to experience that exuberance as much as possible.

And I’m legitimately interested! I’m not *just* listening in order to boost someone’s mood. I love learning new things, and I love those glimpses into the wide chasm that represents “everything you don’t know you don’t know.” It can be difficult, on your own, to really encounter the unexpected. Everything connects to everything else, so over the course of your day/week/life, you’re likely to start with thing A that you know, which connects to thing B which you sort of know, which connects to thing C which you know even less, and so on. But rarely are you thinking about thing A and then suddenly BAM, think W jumps in front of you and now you’re hearing about that! You can go on Wikipedia and click “random article” (and you should, sometimes!) but in my experience the best way to find all these cool pockets of new knowledge is just listen to people.

Everyone knows something you don’t. Everyone.

So I like to listen. Sometimes I eavesdrop (sorry). When I can, I like to get people to just talk at me about whatever thing they’re thinking about. It doesn’t always work; I’ve found that a lot of times people want to talk about the thing they’re passionate about with OTHER people who are already passionate about that thing. If two such people are talking, that’s usually why I try to eavesdrop – or we can just call it “paying attention.” I always learn a lot.

How do you encourage people to talk to you – I mean *really* talk to you, about their weirdest thoughts, coolest beliefs, most unusual opinions? What’s the best way to let them know that I really am interested, that I might debate but I’ll never judge, that I’ll hear you in the way you intend to be heard to the best of my ability? I want everyone in the world to know that there’s at least one other person out there that definitely wants to hear about that thing you saw, place you went, idea you had. I want a billion perspectives.

Double Dare

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is *real,* y’all.

For so many people – I would even hazard to say most people – the reaction to something in their life not working is to do the same thing, but with more effort.

Yeah, because the problem was you weren’t making your mistakes hard enough. But people double down.

There’s definitely such a thing as quitting too early, but I think people are more prone to quitting too late on a lot of things. People will quit a hard task too early, but they’ll quit “taking the easy path” way too late.

This is why incremental measurement of goals is so important. If you can’t tell whether or not you’re succeeding for six months, you’re going to end up doing a lot of stuff that isn’t working for too long. If you have a one-year goal, figure out what successful progression would look like in two weeks, and measure actual results against that. Then do it again. Break it down to the smallest measurable unit, and just focus on those. The big stuff is made of the small stuff, whether small failures or small successes.

So don’t double down on the bad stuff. I dare you.

Why not today?

My (awesome) co-worker Hannah Frankman had an awesome tweet where she talked about things you read having an actual impact on your life. I replied that I think a lot of knowledge is incremental, and builds you as a person over time rather than all at once. But maybe I’m wrong – maybe we could have more of an impact if we took action immediately on things we thought were valuable. How else will we discover what does and doesn’t have actual value?

So if it’s a book, a tweet, a magazine article, a blog, whatever. If it sounds like a good idea and you find yourself saying “Huh, I should look into that,” or “maybe I’ll consider that,” well…

Why not today?

So I started blogging instead of thinking about blogging. I did ten minutes of high-energy exercise this morning instead of thinking about designing an exercise routine. I sent emails to people I wanted to talk to instead of debating a perfect strategy.

Lots of it won’t work. Some of my blogging will be terrible. My exercise was probably laughably bad. My emails might not get responses. So what? I wouldn’t have accomplished anything if I’d just thought about it. Taking any action, even if it fails, gives me data to make the next attempt better. And even if I decide not to continue with something, there’s a world of difference between “I tried something and it didn’t work” and “I never tried.”

Positive Externalities

There used to be a really great blog aggregation program called Pulse. Very simple UI, took whatever blogs you wanted to read and lined them up in one place. No bells or whistles. Loved it. Then one day for some crazy reason, LinkedIn bought it and discontinued it. No other blog-aggregator (bloggregator?) filled the void for me.

Turns out, WordPress is actually great for this! The mobile app aggregates all the blogs’ posts in chronological order and makes them easy follow. I wouldn’t have known the answer I wanted existed if I didn’t start blogging.

Man, learning stuff is awesome.

What is blog, baby don’t hurt me.

I’m not a prolific blogger. We’re doing this to learn. Jim Varney, one of the greats of comedic cinema, had a schtick he would do when playing Ernest P. Worrell. He would ramble at the camera directly, which was playing the role of his “friend” Vern. Vern never had lines and was never seen, though it was clear from the context that he was annoyed by Ernest’s constant shenanigans. I like the idea of communication that, while consumed by an audience of many, is played out as if it were addressed to just one other person.

I think that’s the model I’m going to go for here. I’m just going to talk to you, friend. You and I, we’re going on this journey together. Thanks for coming along.