First To Help

In my daughter’s class, they apparently had an assignment this week where they drew a classmate’s name out of a hat and then had to write something nice about them. A perfectly fine exercise, in my opinion – looking not only for the good in others, but the deeper good that goes beyond them being “nice” as an adherent to social convention is a good trait to cultivate.

All of the notes were written on pieces of paper shaped like Christmas lights and hung up around the room, to show how each kid “lights up” the classroom. Awww.

But then as a nice bonus, each kid got to take home not the thing they wrote, but the thing written about them. Which means I got to have a little glimpse of how my daughter is viewed in the eyes of others.

Here is what a classmate wrote about my Beansprout:

[Beansprout] lights up our classroom by helping when someone is hurt. You are the first one to notice and help them.”

I am so, so proud of her. She’s so amazing. This isn’t isolated – at a recent birthday party at a skating rink, my daughter (a decently accomplished skater) went considerably slower than her abilities allowed in order to stay holding hands with a younger classmate who was less steady on her feet. When a bully at the beginning of the school year picked on a young kindergartner in her presence, she immediately leaped into the fray and frightened the (older and larger!) bully off and then unilaterally declared the picked-on kid as “her friend,” despite having never met him before.

She is more marvelous than I could ever have hoped. She’s a protector. I’ve always tried to be that way; I think she’s done a better job of it in seven years than I’ve done in five times that amount. I think it’s more likely that she gets it from her grandfather than from me, but wherever she gets it from, I’m so thankful for it.

Please, please, be kind. Our world is wondrous and magical and exciting and interesting, but it is also a big, wild place where it’s easy to get lost for a while. It’s easy to be alone. And those few small gestures of kindness when someone is hurt can change their life. Be kind as if you are the last person on Earth who will be. Be the first to help, because you never know if you’re someone’s last chance.

Old For Your Age

Interesting observation I had today. My oldest kid is 7. She’s amazing; I often hear comments that she’s particularly mature or responsible for her age. She certainly seems that way to me. Important note, she’s the oldest of three.

I know a decent number of other seven-year-old girls. My nieces, my daughter’s friends, kids of acquaintances. Some are very mature, others aren’t; they’re seven, so that’s not a value judgement or anything. You’re definitely allowed to be immature at seven!

But you know what I notice is the common thread? I can tell after about 60 seconds of talking to one of them where they fall in the birth order. Despite identical ages, there’s a world of difference between a 7-year-old who’s the youngest of three versus the oldest of three.

I have this one co-worker who is particularly accomplished and savvy as compared to her age cohort – in fact, she was featured in one of those “25 under 25” lists in a Chicago magazine, so this isn’t just me saying that. In fact, she was the youngest on that list! You know what? Oldest of 6 kids, though.

Maybe there’s a formula you could work out. Maybe someone’s “mental age” is their own age plus some percentage of the ages of their younger siblings. I don’t think being the youngest detracts; I think it’s more that having younger siblings is itself a life experience that gives you more maturity more rapidly.

That made me think of broader applicability of this topic. Having younger siblings as a kid is often a thankless task. You didn’t choose them, for one – depending on the age gap you might not even have been aware they were coming. You don’t get a lot of authority over them but you often end up sharing at least some percentage of the responsibility for them: “Watch your sister!” or “Keep your brother out of the cabinet!” are often heard in our house. (Though, to our credit, we actually do invest our oldest with a fair amount of authority – each new sibling brought with them an explicit “promotion” for our oldest, where we gave her additional perks like later bedtime or more allowance tied specifically to her role as the “Big Sister.”)

As adults, we don’t often seek out new ways to add burdens to ourselves without much benefit. In fact, we usually try to minimize our burdens. But maybe that’s not the best thing to do.

In the same way that a kid’s “mental age” is some combination of the years they’ve been alive and the years they’ve been a big brother or big sister, maybe an adult’s “mental age” is the combination of their years at each major life task. Maybe if the only thing you hold any responsibility towards is your job by age 30, you’re 30 years old in your head. But if you also taught yourself piano for 5 of those years, you’re older than that. If you raised a family, older. Traveled the world, older.

Sure, some of this is me just saying “having experiences makes you experienced,” duh. But it’s more than that. It’s more than just the experience of moments. It’s sustained experiences, that come with duties, compounded over time. That’s what truly adds value to your life.

Consider: You see the typical job ad that says “5 Years’ Experience Required.” If someone has worked a job in that field for five years, then they meet that requirement. But if someone has hustled their butt off and sacrificed nights and weekends to work two full-time jobs in that field simultaneously for the past three years, they’re clearly qualified as well – they actually have more experience than the first person. Even though they’ve only been in the field 3 years (and perhaps even better, since their early skills have had less time to atrophy and become irrelevant)!

How you fill your years is more important than how many years you have. It’s like a person claiming they have more water because they have more buckets, but their buckets are only a quarter full. Someone else with fewer, fuller buckets is probably doing better.

Fill your years. The years themselves will be better for you having lived them as fully as you could, and you’ll be better prepared for those years yet to come.

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You Can’t Get There From Here

Let’s say you’re currently employed as a pizza delivery driver. But you want to be an astronaut.

This can feel, on the surface, like a daunting dream. You don’t know how to apply to go into space, so you feel like your goal is impossible. You can’t get there.

Well… not exactly. You can’t get there from here. But you also don’t have to stay “here,” wherever that is!

People become daunted because they skip steps. They want to do/become/achieve X, but they don’t know what the path is from where they are to that point. The ladder up from pizza delivery driver doesn’t seem to lead to astronaut.

So don’t start with where you are. Start with where you want to go and work backwards.

Find out who is currently doing the thing you want to do, and make a list of them. Whether it’s astronauts, CEOs, or or anything else, just put together a list. Line up their names down the side of your page, and in the next column over, write down what each of them is currently doing. Be a little more specific than “astronaut,” because that’s what they’d all say if you made a list of astronauts. But list what program they’re part of, or what their specialty is, etc.

Then, in the next column over from that, write down the thing they did just before that. This takes time, but surprisingly less effort than you’d think with a little Google-fu. Were they Air Force pilots? Research scientists? Engineers? Put it down.

Rinse, repeat. Keep back-trailing them until you have a column that’s just a list of what each of them was doing at the very start of their careers. You can get there from here.

Don’t worry if their lives looked different than yours. Sure, be realistic – I hate to tell you this, but if you’re 75 years old you’re not becoming an astronaut. But don’t be afraid to have dreams and ambitions. Besides, this applies to anything, not just astronauts – so no matter what your list was, start with the idea you can do it.

Once you have a list of “starting points,” look for common themes, or starting points that you could go take action on today. There will be steps between where you are now and your eventual dream, but if you aren’t prepared for and willing to endure that, then it wasn’t much of a dream.

If you really want to be an astronaut and every single astronaut started by being in the Air Force at some point, then guess what? Time to put down the pizza and go sign up. It’s either that, or freeze yourself for 1,000 years and hope for the best.

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A Thousand Words

When is the envelope as important as the letter?

When it has the address on it.

Or, to put it another way: your method of delivery and how effectively you reach your audience carries as much weight as your message. Moderately good advice that reaches a million people does more good for the world than really great advice falling on only one set of ears. Or eyes, or whatever.

In a conversation I had today, I mentioned that I believe we primarily exist as relationships to other people. “No one is an island,” as they say. That means that no matter how brilliant your work is, you have to find a way for other people to see and hear it for it to really matter. It honestly pains me to think that sitting out there somewhere is the greatest novel I’ve never read, languishing on someone’s hard drive for lack of the marketing knowledge to get it to me.

My work is closely related to this. In pretty much all of my professional channels I try to lower the barriers between the people who would be really great at something if only they could communicate that fact a little better with the people who need to hear the message. I’m happy to say that I’ve brought down many a wall in that category.

I’m less happy to say that I don’t often take my own advice. This blog is a prime example. I have plenty of reasons for writing this, but first and foremost my audience was myself. I wanted to organize my own thinking, have a catalog of my ideas that I could reference for myself. I thought I’d start with just posting for the sake of posting, and then figure it out from there.

Well, that was over two hundred and fifty posts ago. I think I can legitimately start taking steps to promote this without feeling like I’m all fluff and no substance; there’s substance a-plenty in these archives.

So this is essentially an announcement that I’m going to be taking steps to make this blog a little more visible, and you’ll probably see them. But at the same time, I wanted to make sure I was still talking about something of substance, even in this kind of post. So take that advice to heart: you’re allowed to (and should!) promote yourself. Be honest, but be loud. If you fail in life, let it be because you tried your hardest and fell short; there’s honor in that, value to your soul and to the future lives of others. Don’t let it be because you actually succeeded and no one knew about it.

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Following Too Closely

Today while driving, I saw that the car in front of me was following the car in front of them extremely closely. Tailgating, riding the bumper, etc. In case you didn’t know, this is dangerous and stupid – it’s rude to the driver you’re following, but it puts you in danger as well.

While today’s scenario didn’t end in disaster, it did end in humorous inconvenience for the rude driver: the person in front needed to make a left turn, and the rude driver was following so closely that they were forced to wait, unable to maneuver around the front car despite ample shoulder room (which the rest of us in line, following at a respectable distance, were easily able to use). Instead, they had to sit there while the front driver waited for all opposing traffic to pass so they could turn left.

Now, I could just share that story so you could share in a little schadenfreude with me, but since I always like to look for lessons and metaphors in everyday occurrences, I’m going to take this a bit further.

“Following Too Closely” is something a lot of us do in life. Maybe we don’t do it to be rude, but perhaps out of eagerness to get to our destination. Regardless, we attach ourselves to certain leaders, inspirational figures, or role models and follow so closely in their footsteps that we can’t anticipate the potential dangers of doing so. We’re so close up their butts that we can’t see in front of them. Even great people make mistakes, so if you want the maximum benefit from taking inspiration or leadership from someone else, give them room to make them without you crashing into the back of them. If someone attempts something risky, you can wait and see how it turns out before you follow. Absorb the benefits of their trailblazing by letting them figure out where the trail goes.

Or, blaze your own. And if you do, make sure that those following you know that they should give you a little space as well. Blind dedication is rarely good for anyone. Give everyone a little extra space.

Clock’s Ticking!

What do you do in the last minute?

Despite our best efforts in planning, sometimes you’re just up against the buzzer. Maybe you lost track of time, maybe emergencies came up, or maybe you just didn’t plan as well as you thought. But no matter the cause, in those cases you still have to ship something.

What are your techniques for minimizing the damage to your abilities that comes from the pressure and lack of resources?

To start, focus on your “minimum viable product.” Something presentable is better than nothing at all, so ignore the theoretically perfect and go for whatever works. The world is full of second chances, so I guarantee you’ll have time to come back and polish your efforts later if it’s necessary. Many times, it won’t be.

Next, draw on the well of temporary energy. There are best practices for sustainable effort without burnout, but when it’s crunch time, borrowing against future energy is a good play. Crank up your motivation playlist, drink some coffee, and maybe sacrifice a daily activity like working out (unless that actually gives you a burst, as it does with some people). I believe that it’s actually good to pull an all-nighter every once in a while, even if just to remind yourself that you can.

Lastly, don’t second-guess yourself. Get to the flow state as soon as you can, and when you get there, let it ride. The work you produce in that state can be surprisingly good, but once your burst of high energy runs out and the fatigue starts to set back in, you’re not in a good position to judge your own efforts. If you can outsource a second set of eyes in the eleventh hour, great; but if you can’t, just ship. You’re just as likely to turn a correct answer into a wrong one as you are to make some small marginal improvement.

And of course, when it’s all done and you’ve rested, examine the situation that led you here. It’s good to be able to do this when necessary, because a few instances are unavoidable in life. But it’s also good to minimize them, and that means learning from your past mistakes.

There’s always a new clock tomorrow.

The Medium Spoon

Have you ever heard of “spoon theory?” Ever since I first heard this term for this concept, I’ve found it extremely helpful. Basically the concept uses spoons as a metaphor for all the mental energy it takes to make active decisions throughout your day. (“Spoons” are definitely a component of Juice then!) The concept was originally used to help people understand the specific struggles of those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, but let’s be honest – everyone has limited spoons, so the concept is helpful to everyone. Different people might have different amounts, but no one has infinite.

I love this concept because it’s easy to understand and the analogy holds up well. Have you ever found yourself at the end of a long day, completely unable to put thought into something that you know is routine for you? You’re out of spoons. It doesn’t matter that eating a bowl of cereal is easy in a vacuum; you still need a spoon to do it.

Different people replenish their spoons in different ways. Some people need sleep; others need a particular kind of R&R. But until you get more, you’re going to have a really hard time doing anything, especially things that require active mental maneuvering.

One of my favorite little tricks about this analogy is that it helps you recognize that no matter how minor a decision is, it still takes at least one spoon. If you only want to eat one bite of ice cream out of the carton, you still dirty the same spoon as if you ate a whole bowl. That holds up for a lot of people – 10 small decisions don’t take the same mental energy as one big one. The ten small ones add up quickly.

My solution to this is just to not make as many small decisions as possible. I only own one kind of shirt, and I just have eight copies of it – one for each day of the week, plus a spare. I have a fridge full of meal-replacement shakes so I never have to decide what to eat – if someone offers me something else I’m happy to say “sure” and go with it, but I never have to do that thing where I moan “what do I want to eeeeeaaaaaat” for twenty minutes. Stuff like that. The kinds of small decisions we face every day, I just try to eliminate entirely by creating defaults that I can deviate from if I feel like it, but secure me against spoon depletion if I’m rationing.

I also have a very spoon-friendly policy that I adopted several years ago, and which has served me very well: I set my default level of “caring about stuff” to zero, and only increase it under very specific circumstances.

I’ve noticed that most people seem to have their default “caring about stuff” level set to 2 or 3 for everything. They care about what other people wear. They care about whether someone else said something they like or don’t. They care about the results of sports games. They care about whether the food they just ate tasted good or not. They care about whether or not they get a picture of something.

That’s so exhausting that witnessing other people doing it almost takes spoons away from me. Almost.

In both the short term and the long term, almost nothing matters. 99% of your daily activities won’t have any impact 100 years from now; probably not even ten. And any impact you do have 100 years from now probably won’t matter another hundred years after that. But in the medium term, you can do great things. You can raise a beautiful and wonderful family, you can explore great mysteries, you can produce inspiring art or knowledge. That medium term is the sweet spot.

The medium term is where you have the most leverage. The things you do today won’t matter much in a hundred years, but they can have tremendous impact on the life you and your loved ones are living in twenty. But the things that will create the best medium term are probably not the same things that most people care about in the short term. Lots of people care about short term junk like how many people like their social media profiles or whether they have to work on Saturday. Some people care about the great wide world a thousand years in the future, and they get frustrated at how little they can affect it.

Caring about the short term is like digging a hole in the sand at the beach. It’s so ephemeral and nothing you do stays or matters. Caring about the long term is like trying to move a mountain; you just can’t.

But caring about the medium term is like digging a canal. It’s hard, but it’s possible. It won’t last forever, but it will have a ton of value while it does last. It can make things easier for other people, maybe move the needle for the next person, but also provide value to you directly. Something like that is worth spending your spoons on.

Notes, December 2019 Edition

I love talking about music. I specifically love sharing it and hearing about it. There are a small number of people that just have this gift of direct soul-to-soul communication, while the rest of us languish under the burden of having our truest and deepest feelings trapped behind walls, isolated in the silos of our selves. The music those rare few create is like a secret language the rest of us can use, messages in bottles thrown from one island to another, and the more music you know about, the more of that language you can use. So here you go!

Romantic Warrior, by Return to Forever. There is a really strong chance that you’ve never heard anything like this. I’m not even sure how I’d describe it if I were trying to connect it to something you’ve already heard. It’s jazz/rock fusion, but that description falls so short. This is impossible music; if I described to you the notes and structure independently you’d never believe it could be as good as it is. It puts you in the mindset to remember a great story.

Why Me? Why Not., by Liam Gallagher. Yeah, I’m definitely a sucker for good heavy blues rock, but Liam Gallagher is putting a spin on it that’s different than a lot of what I’ve heard from the genre recently. For one, he doesn’t overly rely on the heavy riffs to carry the song; the lyrics are great and his voice has a sort of Sgt. Pepper quality that I really like. He also puts in some weird sounds that you don’t hear in a lot of blues rock, especially over his voice. It’s like if Paul McCartney wrote and sang on an album with The Black Keys.

Cheap Thrills, by Big Brother and The Holding Company. The last album from this band with the incredible Janis Joplin singing lead (she started her solo career shortly after). This features my favorite Janis song ever, Piece of my Heart (though credit where it’s due – that’s a cover of an Erma Franklin song!), but the rest of the album is just as powerful. This is the sort of music that the modern currents of the music industry just can’t produce anymore, so enjoy it – it won’t come again.

Villains, by Jonathan Young. Jonathan Young is this fantastic metal singer who covers songs from movies, television themes, or Broadway hits in this incredibly cool metal style. This isn’t deep, it’s just fun as all heck. He’s not only a great musician, but he has a perfect understanding of what makes a song “cool” and knows how to amplify those aspects. This is an album where he specifically covers a bunch of great villain tunes, and it’s just awesome. Pick your favorite song off the track list and give it a listen, you’ll be hooked.

tryhard, by The Band CAMINO. This is really fun music. It’s a modern update of a lot of the best aspects of synth-pop from the 80’s, and the upbeat sort of “dance ballads” that came out of the early 2000’s. It’s kind of like A-ha and The Postal Service doing a thing together, with maybe a little Weezer thrown in. There was a time in the late 90’s when I really didn’t like what pop music was becoming, and I kind of always hoped it would turn into something like this. I’m glad it did.

Listen to something new today – add a few more words to your vocabulary in the language of the universe. You won’t regret it. And as always, share more with me!

Climbing Down The Ladder

A wise person once gave me some good advice: Know Your Maslow.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is this theory proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow that establishes a ranking between five categories of needs, starting from basic physiological needs and ascending to true self-actualization. In the context of the advice given to me, this basically means to understand that before people have the needs of their current level met, they’re not really capable of thinking seriously about the next level. In other words, people don’t care about the respect of their peers if they’re struggling to even eat on a day-to-day basis. If you understand this, you can predict a lot of people’s responses to things and understand their behaviors better as they connect to their circumstances.

Ultimately, we all want to climb this hierarchy. If we don’t even have the basic survival elements, we want them. Once we feel we’ve got a handle on food and such, then we want a relative level of safety, security, and stability. After we’ve got that, we want people – a society, a group of peers, interaction. Once we’ve got that, we want status; esteem among those peers. And once we feel like we’ve got all that, we want true internal happiness.

People are all different, so it’s certainly possible to imagine some Buddhist monk who achieves true self-actualization without having any of that other stuff (except maybe food and water), but Maslow is probably right about 99% of people, which means it’s a good template to understand others. And probably yourself.

Which is where the challenge can come in. Think of your life path like a ladder. While I don’t know if I can judge whether some life paths are “better” than others, I feel confident claiming that some are a better fit for you than others might be. When you first pick a life path, it’s a lot like putting a ladder against the side of that pyramid and starting to climb.

But if Maslow’s right, then one of the features of this system is that it’s hard to see the top from the bottom. While you’re scrambling for enough money to both pay rent and eat, it’s hard to think about whether what you’re doing will ultimately lead to true inner satisfaction some day.

So you might discover that the particular way you’ve chosen to live your life has gotten you to, say, level 3. You’ve got enough money to comfortably pay your bills, you have a stable environment, you have some friends, etc. But that’s as far as the ladder goes. For whatever reason, you discover that this ladder isn’t tall enough to get you to levels 4 or 5; your unsatisfying career is never going to make you truly happy, and it probably isn’t earning you much respect, either, so you’re stuck. You don’t want to just be at level 3 forever, so what do you do?

Well, lots of people try to jump from one ladder to another. But if you’ve ever tried to do that in real life, you know it’s not very smart, and the analogy holds. There’s a lot of danger there. Someone tries to switch careers without losing a single inch of altitude, and suddenly they hit all sorts of stumbling blocks and they might lose their job, have disaster strike, etc. It won’t always happen, but it definitely can.

The smarter thing to do is much, much more emotionally challenging. It’s climbing down the ladder. But everything in us pushes us to climb up Maslow’s pyramid, not down it – if we have a peer group, we don’t want to give it up. If we have stability, we don’t want to sacrifice it.

But what if that’s what it takes? What if the ladder that goes all the way to level 5 is way over there, and you can’t jump to it, but you can reach it from the bottom?

In practical terms, this might mean that in order to find that life path that takes you all the way to level 5, you might have to sacrifice the esteem of your peers, because they’ll call you crazy for giving up your great but soul-draining job as a corporate lawyer. Then you might have to give up that peer group entirely, because you’ll be too busy focusing on learning new skills and improving yourself to put in the time with them. Then you might even have to sacrifice stability, because you can’t afford that Manhattan penthouse any more, and soon you’re a broke college student again at 45 barely paying rent and living off a rapidly depleting savings so you can focus on your studying full time.

But then, from the bottom, you build back up. You get your survival needs handled. You find a new role in your new vocation that you love, and you’re more stable. Your new peer group shares your vision of the future and you connect with them better than you ever did with that old group. You earn their respect and admiration from the amazing things you do for the world. And looking back upon what you’ve accomplished, you’re truly happy. Your ladder went all the way to the top this time.

That’s just one of a million ways that could play out, but the theme is the same – sometimes to get to the top you have to go back to the bottom. Don’t be afraid of it. The top isn’t going anywhere, and if you climbed once you can climb again. Even if you have to try out a dozen ladders, that’s okay. That just makes you better at climbing, stronger and lighter. You’ll get to the top, if you know your Maslow.

Three Conditions

Restrictions breed creativity.

It’s hard to think of an idea when the criteria is a blank page. When anything is theoretically an option, we tend to freeze up. On the other hand, when given a very specific framework to operate within, we often find very creative solutions.

“Design the best possible house” is daunting. “Design the best possible house that can fit in under 800 square feet, costs less than $75,000 in materials, and can stay cool in the Arizona desert” is actually less daunting despite the restrictions, because we start looking at the restrictions as problems to be solved. The things we can’t do actually become the starting point for the things we can do.

That can apply to a lot of things, and different types of restrictions make sense for different decision trees. “Where do you want to eat dinner tonight” is a classic relationship-straining question. But add some restrictions, like: “Where do you want to eat dinner tonight that is within 15 minutes, has a maximum cost of $30/person, and includes cheesecake as a desert option?” Suddenly it’s easier to figure out.

Using that concept, here’s an exercise to use when brainstorming about jobs. If I say to you, “design your ideal job,” you’d probably come up with absolutely nothing that was interesting or realistic enough to start your search with. I’ve asked many clients this, and stopped because the answers never went anywhere. But then I started asking a different kind of question.

I’d start with some job, any job, that came up in conversation. Maybe it’s the job their sibling has. Maybe it’s a job ad they happened to see but rejected. Maybe it’s just a job another of my clients has. Doesn’t really matter as long as it’s at least in the ballpark of their career level.

Then I’ll say, “Imagine a scenario where you have to take this job; you have no choice. But you can make exactly three changes to it – blank checks to change any three aspects of the job. You can change industry, chain of command, compensation structure, schedule, duties, company culture, etc. – but only three things. Basically you can re-write three lines of the job description. What three conditions would make you excited to take this job offer?”

Now that question produces answers! And those answers tend to be very illuminating in terms of what the person really wants out of their career. You could do this with anything, really. Are you single but not sure what you want in a partner? Go onto an online dating profile and imagine you have to marry the first person you randomly click, but you can change exactly three things. Now you’ll know three things that are important to you, and you can start looking for people that already have those three qualities. And you can iterate until you’re comfortable. How about houses? “I’d buy this house if I could add X, change Y, and take away Z.” Great, now look for houses that already have those features, rinse and repeat.

Do that with a job. Once you figure out what three things you’d change, look for roles that already have those three things. When you find such a role, repeat the experiment, changing three more things. When you get to the point where it’s hard to come up with three things you’d even change, then chances are that’s a great role for you.

This also gets you out of the habit of viewing things as packages of traits that can’t be unbundled. If you see a job with a great salary but an unpleasant commute, you might be fooled into thinking that those things automatically come together; that all good salaries are bundled with unpleasant commutes. But the possible combinations of traits for any given category of thing are infinite – there’s definitely a job out there with a great salary but an okay or better commute, or whatever combination you want. You can find the right set of trade-offs for you if you train your mind to see them.

You could even do this with your life. “If I could only change three things about my life from this exact moment, what three would they be?” That’s a great way of focusing your efforts on what really matters. It probably wouldn’t be that you’d watch more television.

Any time you’re presented with an option you don’t like, affix three conditions to it that would make you like it. Now you have a road map. Go forth and make it happen.