Happiness & Success

Sustainable growth, improving in the face of success, and realistic costs. That’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to put down my thoughts about why we can improve sometimes but other times it feels hard, why the biggest barrier to your future success might be your past success, and why you can “be anything you want” – if.

Before I get into it, I need to define a term I’ll be using a lot in this piece. The term is “juice.” Whenever you’re working on something, a lot of resources get used – time, money, effort, calories, social capital, decision-making fatigue, mental energy, sacrifices, and so on. Rather than write all of that out, I’m going to collectively lump all of that together under the term “juice.” So when I use that term, that’s what I’m talking about: the wide variety of resources, both tangible and intangible, that are required to make things happen.

Part I – The Scramble

When you’ve got nothing, success is easy. That’s because when you’re literally at rock bottom, nearly anything counts as “success.” If you’re broke and you go out and make fifty dollars, that’s a huge win. And I don’t mean to say that in a derogatory way or diminish it – it is a huge win. If everything about your current situation is bad, you won’t waste any juice on maintaining any part of it, so 100% can go towards forward movement.

But the more you gain, the more you have to care about what you’ve gained. If you work incredibly hard to turn a plot of arid land into a farm that can grow crops, that’s a huge win. But now you have to maintain that land – the farm will go south fast if you don’t pay attention to it. So you can’t put the same amount of juice into the next acre as you did to the first one.

When you push off against the side of the pool while you’re swimming, you get a great burst of speed to start. But then you’ve got to propel yourself while also staying afloat.

I recently had an interaction with a company that fell well within my area of expertise, and within that sphere, they were doing a lot of things wrong. But overall they were successful – clearly they were doing something right in other areas. Because I don’t ever want to think I have all the answers, I started digging a little deeper; maybe I was the incorrect one after all. But no, I’d found that similar experts had said similar things about this one area, even though the company was doing pretty well overall. So why weren’t they fixing this one thing?

Because 100% of their juice was fueling the maintenance of the things they’re doing well. They’re spinning plates. Their growth has been very rapid, but that means they don’t have a lot of their processes locked down, efficient and automatic yet. They’re scrambling. That doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out and ultimately be successful (they might!), but it does mean that future growth is going to be very, very difficult until they do.

In other words, their current success is hindering their future success, because instead of having juice to spend on growth, they’re spending it all on maintenance. You’ll always spend some percentage of juice on maintaining your existing successes – nothing will ever be truly automatic – but you want that outlay to be as low as possible, so you have enough left over to keep growing.

Part II – That Which Is Unseen

Frédéric Bastiat (a brilliant 19th-century economist) wrote about how it can be extremely difficult to grasp the reality of things that don’t happen but could have. If you slack off on maintaining your car and then have to pay 100 dollars for a repair as a result, you feel that very sharply. But if you slack off at work and as such don’t get a hundred dollar bonus that you otherwise could have, you don’t feel that nearly so much – maybe not at all. In both cases you’re a hundred dollars poorer than you could have been, but your mind treats those scenarios very differently. In other words, we feel the pain of losses much more sharply than the pain of foregone gains.

We’re always on the lookout for losses, but we’re nowhere near as good as spotting the places where we’re foregoing extra gains. This is true always, but it’s especially true if you’re already doing pretty well! If you’re dead broke, you’re looking out for any opportunity to make money. But if you have a comfortable income, you’re not as tuned to the opportunities where you could be making more if you changed things. If your business is generating good revenue, you’re not as aware of the places where it could improve.

Part of that is because you’re spending juice on just maintaining what you’ve got, so you have less for new ideas. But another big chunk is that we tend to think, “If I’m successful, I must already be doing everything right.” We let our egos get in the way. It’s good to be proud of your accomplishments – it’s just bad to be too proud. Leave yourself enough humility to improve.

Another reason we’re bad at that is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that only people more successful than us can teach us anything. And as you get more successful, naturally that pool of people shrinks down. But someone doesn’t need to be an expert to teach you something. Even if you’re successful, you’ve found one of potentially thousands of paths to get where you are. Other paths might have taught you different things. You took Path 1, so now that you’re here you’re successful, but you’ve reached a plateau because you’re great at Thing A but not so good at Thing B. Someone who took Path 2 might not have been as successful because they never learned enough about Thing A, but along the way learned a lot more about Thing B than you.

So before you’re quick to say “Who are you to tell me how to run my business, if you’re not as successful as me,” ask yourself – are you the maximum level of success you could possibly be, or is there room for improvement despite the fact that you’ve done well? And if there’s room for improvement – then you don’t know everything, and thinking that you do is holding you back.

Part III – Everything You Ever

When we tell kids “you can be anything you want,” we’re trying to be encouraging. To let them know that their destiny is their own. My favorite Dr. Seuss quote (and one of my all-time favorite quotes, period) is:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.

It’s not only true, it’s an important lesson to teach. But I think it’s incomplete – we leave out an important bit. I’m not the brilliant poet that Dr. Seuss is, so forgive me, but:

Some roads are expensive
And others are cheap.
Some paths are quite shallow
And many are steep.
You can still be a winner
When you’ve just lost the game.
You can take any path,
But they don’t cost the same.

To put it in a much geekier, less-poetic way: We don’t really teach our kids about opportunity cost, and we should. Yes, you can be anything – you can be a schoolteacher or an astronaut. But by any measure, being an astronaut is much, much harder to accomplish. If we measure success only by the end result, we’re getting a very skewed view of reality.

If I offered you a choice between a new Kia Forte or a Ferrari 458, which would you want? Most people would probably take the Ferrari. But if the choice instead was between a Ferrari 458, or a Kia Forte with $200,000 in the backseat, which would you choose now? Sure, a Ferrari is cooler than a Kia. But that’s measuring only the end result. The two hundred grand that the Kia didn’t cost might have bought a lot of cool stuff. That’s “that which is unseen.”

The lesson here is absolutely NOT that we should tell kids not to strive for things that are hard or require a lot of juice to get there. But everyone – kids and adults alike – should recognize that sometimes the thing you think you want costs way, way more than things that would make you equally (or more!) happy.

Putting this all together: Maybe you’re pretty successful. Maybe you wish you were more successful, but for some reason the trajectory has slowed for you. When you were broke and hungry you got motivated and took off like a rocket, but now the steps are longer and you’re not growing like you used to. You had an idea of where you wanted to be by now, but it was based on the rate of growth you saw ten years ago and that rate has slowed, so now you’re not where you thought you’d be.

It’s time to look around. Look over your past successes – are they fueling you, or draining you? Is it taking a lot of your juice just to maintain them, or are they giving you more? If it’s the former, then go reinforce or even rebuild them. Delegate your authority. Someone I used to work for just named a new CEO for his company so he could focus on a new project – that’s bold and correct, and not everyone can do that.

Doing that will help you in another way – it’ll put the spirit of the hustle back into you. You won’t be resting on your laurels, you’ll be back to doing something new. And with that will come the learner mentality again; you’ll pull yourself away from thinking you know everything, because you’ll face more failures, false starts, and setbacks. That will keep you humble and humility will help you learn. That which is normally unseen will reveal itself to you.

And then you can take stock. Success is a journey, but at some point you have to decide what it really means to you. You have to define the terms of your own happiness, and that’s going to involve a little price comparison shopping, too. There’s all different kinds of happiness, and they all cost different amounts of juice. But there’s a particular kind of happiness out there that’s ideal for you – you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can find happiness that costs just the right juice.

Threads

I have an excellent method for exploring new ideas or learning about new topics. This method works especially well when you have virtually zero background in the new area, and it feels too overwhelming to start.

This happens to people all the time. They decide they want to get into something new, but the incredible width and depth of new information feels daunting. I’ve worked with many clients who have exactly this problem, and countless more people I’ve just interacted with who express it. Since this method works really well, I’m going to share it with you.

Start with just one “thread.” What’s a thread, in this context? Literally any source of information pertaining to the new topic. Let’s say you want to learn about baseball. Your first thread could be anything – a Wikipedia article on a team, a person who works at a stadium, a book on the history of the sport. Interact with that thread – read the article, peruse the book, have a conversation with the person. That part’s easy, and probably what you would have done anyway. Here’s the actual method, though:

Your goal in that interaction is to come away with three more “threads” to follow.

So let’s say you’re talking to the friend that works in a stadium. Ask that friend whatever you want to know, but make sure you also ask for three different suggestions for new sources of information. A book he suggests, a show she watches, another person they think is also knowledgeable. Write these threads down.

Then pick one of the three and go interact. Watch that show, read that other book, talk to that other person. Make sure you get at least three new threads. So if you watch a show, maybe you write down the name of one of the people on it to look them up later because they seemed interesting or knowledgeable. Maybe you learned about a new player you want to follow on social media. Write them down!

Some of these threads won’t pan out or will go to dead ends, but that’s why you strive for three each time. Your list of interesting leads will grow and grow, and you’ll pick and choose the ones that seem most interesting. Sometimes you’ll find several threads lead you to the same new one, and then that one will become very enticing! Follow it, see where it leads.

In around 2012 or so, I became really, really interested in economics and political science. This is the method I used to learn about it. I started with a single blog that someone shared, but from there I read books, met economists, studied papers, and really fell into the world. I loved it, and the learning was phenomenal. After one particular three-hour conversation, a brilliant economist with the Canadian government asked me where I earned my Ph.D. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received, because I just learned what I did with this method.

It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it is very directed. The idea is loosely based on the small-world experiment; the basic idea is that all of these interesting pieces of information are connected, so you can start literally anywhere and if you follow enough threads you’ll become an expert. And more threads will point to better information, so all you have to do is be open-minded and follow any thread presented to you, and the natural way these things connect will lead you to good information.

The hardest part about this method is being very deliberate about getting three leads out of every interaction. If you don’t do that, you’ll lose inertia and end up just circling around the same dozen or so impact points, getting surface-level knowledge but never really going beyond it. But if you commit to turning each thread into three, your knowledge pool will grow forever. You can, of course, stop whenever you want – but learning is always a life-long journey. Take the long way home.

Priority Number One

Lots of things can be important to you. But only one thing can be the most important.

Everything has a ranking. The space between them may be razor-thin, and many things may vie for the top few spots. But there may come a time in your life when you have to choose between the two most important things, and on that day you’ll find out what number one truly is.

That doesn’t mean this is an easy thing to think about. But in reality, we act as if we already know the answer every day. Every choice we make, we’re implicitly prioritizing one thing over another – we prioritize convenience over health and money when we eat fast food. We prioritize family over career when we call out sick to take care of our kids.

But we’re often inconsistent. We prioritize today over tomorrow when we buy that new toy we don’t really need, but we prioritize tomorrow over today when we put aside more of our paycheck into a retirement account.

We’re inconsistent because we often haven’t really thought about the big picture. Try this: Make a list of everything that’s truly important to you. Family, wealth, happiness, fun, all of it.

Then rank them. Pit them against each other in your mind and decide which would win until you have a true hierarchy.

Then ask yourself if you’re really acting every day as if that were true.

And if you want a real “life hack” – once you’ve made that list, draw a line after number 5, and cut the list off there. Trash everything below #6. If it didn’t make the top 5, it’s probably just a distraction from the really important stuff.

Fault Lines

Most people have a terrible habit of making excuses.

Sometimes people rush to point the finger at someone else when a mistake happens, trying to foist the blame onto another party. That might be a bad habit, but it has two things going for it: one, sometimes it’s actually correct, and two, sometimes it’s actually helpful. If you’re pointing the finger accurately (i.e. at the person who actually made the mistake and should fix it), then your only real issue is tact and diplomacy. But at least you’re moving towards a solution.

That’s not, in my experience at least, what most people do. Most people don’t rush to blame others; maybe out of kindness, maybe just out of fear of the finger being pointed back at them. No, in my experience people are quick to blame the universe, or fate, or something like that. They say things like “it couldn’t have been helped,” or “no one could have seen that coming,” or “society is to blame,” or something like that.

I call those “fault lines.” Lines that try to hand-wave away fault… but also because they’re structurally dangerous places to build.

You see, you can’t build anything meaningful on that kind of sentiment, even if sometimes it’s true.

Sometimes things are going to happen that are genuinely not you fault – or even anyone’s fault. But saying that helps exactly no one get better. If a tornado hits your house, that’s not your fault – but if you stand around staring at the rubble of your home, unwilling to act because the mess wasn’t your fault, your life isn’t going to get any better.

It might not be your fault. But it is your responsibility.

Take yourself out of the victim mindset. You have varying degrees of control over the events of your life – but you almost never have no control. Remember when I said it wasn’t your fault that a tornado hit your house? Well… do you live in a high-tornado area? Is that public knowledge? You can’t control the weather, but you don’t have zero ability to make impact on the results. You could live somewhere else. And if your response is to start listing all the reasons why you can’t – the expense, proximity to your family, your work, whatever – then that’s still you making choices.

If a comet hits the Earth and we all die, that’s fate. If a tornado destroys your house, that’s maybe mostly fate, but some percentage poor planning. And if a tornado destroys your house a second time – well my friend, that’s on you.

That line of thinking will help you. Saying, “it’s not my fault a tornado hit my house” is a Fault Line. It’s structurally unsound. It won’t improve you life. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault. It matters that your life could improve if you took certain steps, but you didn’t, because you cared more about blame than improving things.

Don’t accept that victim mindset. Don’t race to avoid blame or guilt – find a way to embrace accountability and responsibility. To do otherwise is to simply surrender to the universe and say you accept whatever cards fate deals out to you. I don’t. You shouldn’t, either.

How Can I Help You?

I want to help.

That’s about as concise of a statement about myself that can accurately summarize my goals while still being true. I won’t pretend I’m some altruistic, philanthropic angel, but I do get a lot of selfish happiness from seeing others succeed and knowing I helped, so it’s a win/win. Like probably 99% of people, though, I don’t always know the best way to help people.

Desire is not the same as knowledge. If someone is sick or injured, you can desire with all your heart for them to be better, but lack the knowledge to make it happen.

We spend a lot of our life trying to figure out the best ways to accomplish our goals. And for the most part, a lot of our societal structure is designed to facilitate that. What is a lot harder (and a much more solitary journey) is discovering that goal in the first place.

We ask high school students (or sometimes even younger people!) what they want to do with the rest of their lives, and expect real answers. Sometimes we’re trying to help them – if they say, “I want to be a veterinarian,” then we can leap into action and give them all sorts of tools and advice and methods to get to that.

We have a lot less to offer if they say, “I don’t know; I just want to be happy.” Or “I want to help people.” Perfectly reasonable things to want, but not specific enough for us to help. So we give flimsy, halfhearted attempts to get them to pick a more solid goal – we ask them “what would you do if you had a million dollars” and expect that to magically create a career plan for them.

We’re not comfortable with people not fitting into neat categories. We don’t like it if people want to leave options open. But many, many people reach a point in their lives where they realize that maybe they were a little to hasty jumping onto their first plan, and now they’re not only unsatisfied and unfulfilled, but they also feel trapped – they focused all their efforts on one thing, and now they don’t want to do that thing anymore.

What now?

If you want a nearly instantaneous way to increase your life satisfaction, help someone with something.

It doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t have to be miraculous. It doesn’t have to be a business. But I guarantee you that you’ll have a good day if at some point during that day you help someone carry something. Or answer a question for someone that’s lost. Or paint a door. Or change a tire. Or… a million different things.

Start small. But helping makes us feel good. Feeling good makes us think more clearly. Clear thinking gets us to our next goal.

I think the whole “what would you do with a million dollars” question is a terrible way to pick a career path or a life goal. But here’s another question that’s much better: If you had to spend 8 hours a day for the rest of your life helping people in any way you chose, how would you do it?

People need help. With everything. No one is an island. I can’t grow enough food myself to feed my family. I can’t repair an air conditioner. I can’t make shoes. There are literally billions of ways you can help.

If you start small, you may find that certain things come more naturally. When it’s all voluntary, you do the things that feel most natural and most satisfying. That can help you look at the world with different eyes. If you’re lost, just look around, and no matter where you are, ask:

“How can I help you?”

Notes, August 2019 Edition

Here’s some music I like!

Let’s Rock” by The Black Keys. The new Black Keys album is great. I know I’m not sharing some huge insight by revealing that the newest album by a popular band is awesome, but maybe you’ve never listened to them before and you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000. I hope so!

Rambler 65” by Ben Vaughn. Ben Vaughn is this very prolific and very weird musician and music aficionado. In addition to recording a number of fantastic albums, he’s also done music for movies and television (so you’ve probably heard him even if you don’t know it) and has a great radio show himself. He recorded this album of awesome old-school rock entirely in a car, rather than a studio.

Hair of the Dog” by Nazareth. This album is just so freakin’ good. Nazareth is way underrated, in my opinion. Every song on this album cooks.

Give It Back To You” by The Record Company. Poetic lyrics combined with incredibly soulful blues rock. This album was so powerful it kept me entirely from doing whatever I was doing when it started playing. It was so good as soon as it ended I replayed it.

More Seduction” by Manda & The Marbles. There’s this very specific style of female vocalist that I just adore, and Manda is it. This album has a strong nostalgic component for me, but I still think it’s objectively great. It’s the kind of music that makes you feel great about feeling sad, like “ennui pop.”

There’s a certain age (or maybe just life stage) where you stop organically encountering new music. Where your tastes freeze over and you can keep listening to the same songs forever. I don’t ever want that to happen to me. I seek out new music all the time, fighting against that trend. That’s why I post this series – just talk about music with me! Tell me what you’re listening to!

Word Checker

I have an idea for a word processing plug-in that would be tremendously helpful to me.

Because of both a generally good sense of how to spell things and the fact that I pay attention to the squiggly red lines, I rarely if ever have spelling errors enter my public writing. We also have blue squiggly lines for grammatical errors, but those are a bit less reliable. Still, I pay attention to them and override them when I choose.

But there’s no whatever-check for “correctly spelled, but incorrectly swapped words.” My most common type of error is short-word replacement: Typing “my” when I meant to say “me,” or “it” when I meant to say “is,” etc. I make maybe 1 of these errors every 2-ish posts. Because those words are small and the eye and mind slides easily over them, I often don’t catch them even upon review.

I need a squiggly yellow line to appear under a pre-set list of words that I can edit, to call my attention to them. A line to say “Did you really mean to say ‘all me posts’ like a pirate, or were you trying to say ‘all my posts’ like a boring but correct person?”

If this already exists, please tell me!