The Gratitude Engine

Making a point to express respect, gratitude, and admiration frequently is of an enormous benefit to you. Not just because people will generally like you more, but also because it’s a fantastic thing to think about when you get stuck.

Sometimes in my work, I work with clients who feel a little lost and purposeless (or very lost and purposeless). They want more meaning, or more respect, or more admiration. They don’t know how to get it. I’ll ask them, “well, let’s look for a different model – who’s the last person you expressed those things to?”

If they have an answer, we’re off to the races. It’s easy to then ask questions like “why do you respect that person so much?” We get all sorts of brainstormed ideas about what causes a life to have meaning or what causes work to be respectable in their eyes, etc.

If, however, they answer that initial question with “I can’t even remember the last person I expressed such a thing to,” well… that’s another thing, isn’t it? You don’t show respect or gratitude to anyone around you and you don’t feel like you’re respected or admired by anyone around you. I promise those things are correlated.

Taking frequent note of what you admire in others is an engine that can drive you towards admirable traits in yourself. It’s nearly costless as a habit, and has tons of other benefits besides. In other words, when you esteem someone – say so.

A Few More Scotsmen

There’s a thing called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It works like this: person A says “No Scotsmen eat porridge.” And then person B, who is a Scotsman, says, “I eat porridge, and I’m a Scotsman, so that disproves your statement.” And then person A replies: “Well, no true Scotsman eats porridge.”

Basically, the fallacy is when you define category X as not doing Y, so any examples of X doing Y automatically eliminate themselves as counter-examples, because by your definition they can’t be X if they’re doing Y. Therefore you can’t ever be proven wrong. Hence, the fallacy.

We need more of that!

Why do I say this? Well, this is actually going to be one of my extremely infrequent topical posts. Yesterday, a police officer was found guilty of murder for the death of a man he was in the process of arresting last year. I’m not going to take a stance on how you should feel about police in general. But I’ll say that there are definitely some people who hold the institution in high regard, and who (as a result of that stance, perhaps combined with several other political viewpoints) will defend virtually any actions of a police officer simply because they are one. I would prefer something else. I would prefer even the most ardent defenders of the police to behave thusly:

Person A: “No police officer murders people.”

Person B: “Well, a police officer was just found guilty of murder, so that disproves your statement.”

Person A: “Well, no true police officer murders people.”

In other words – if you hold a particular group in high regard, then you should not defend all members of that group no matter what. You should take members of that group that violate the principles that caused you to esteem the group to begin with, and you should expel them. Even if just from the category in your mind that carries respect.

Late

I used to always want to write my daily posts late in the day. My thinking was that it would often be a reflection on the day’s events, an unpacking. Sort of like the end of an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

But more and more I realize that this passive approach, journaling the day’s events, is counter-productive. My creativity is at its best earlier on, when my writing can be more than just a reflection. It can be a proactive creation of ideas, a spark to set other things in motion.

There’s always tomorrow for reflection. When I can, I’d rather create.

Means, Motive & Opportunity

Motivation is measured in terms of your distance from the very bottom. Put simply, the closer you are to the flames the harder you’ll climb.

Opportunity is how far you are from the top. If you have nowhere to go but up, your life is filled with practically nothing but opportunity.

Taken together, most people who aren’t in a position of great fortune already have lots of opportunity and lots of motivation – at least naturally.

What they often lack is means.

“Means” can mean a lot of things. Finances. Education, or skills. Social capital; a network.

With enough motivation and the right opportunity, you can overcome the lack of means – or gain means, for that matter.

But if you are a person of moderate fortune yourself, consider the impact you can make with just a very small investment. A tiny percentage of your means, invested the right way – teaching a skill, lending some finances, introducing someone to your network – can do absolutely tremendous things for someone who has everything but.

If you have the opportunity to improve someone else’s means – I hope you’re motivated to do so.

The Seat of Power

By default, I think most people assume that they have less power than they do, and that other people have more power than they do.

We think that changing our own fates is very difficult, but we sort of unconsciously imagine that other people have the ability to influence our circumstances almost effortlessly. Hence the common refrain that so many things are someone else’s fault!

The vicious trap here is that often in the belief that others hold power over us, we give it to them. Let’s say you and a co-worker both go for the same promotion, and the co-worker is the one that gets it. In reality, this is one tiny factor in the vast timeline of your life. Your career will continue on its trajectory – there will be promotions you get and promotions you don’t, and this was just one of the latter. You haven’t lost your home, your livelihood, your skills, your ability to work. But if you start spinning your wheels thinking about how badly you’ve been wronged by this co-worker, and how everything is their fault, and how if only they’d never existed your life would be fantastic – then you’re giving them power.

That co-worker probably isn’t thinking about you at all. They’re expending zero effort on you. And yet here you are, stressed and upset and distracted and far below your best self! All because you invested power into the specter of them in your mind.

Don’t do that. Don’t give away your power – recognize it for what it is. Your brain is incredibly strong when fighting on home turf; i.e. thinking about your own life. When you focus too much on the lives of others, you give that power away.

Sometimes

Sometimes, if you show up enough, you get what you want. You win, you find your prize, you get happy.

If you don’t show up to life, you never get it.

Those are your choices – it’s a mix between chance of success or certain failure.

Sometimes, maybe, if – or never.

If you want certainty, quit. That’s the only way to get it.

Without Limit

I absolutely love diminishing marginarl returns.

Life wouldn’t be possible without them. If things didn’t just gradually decrease in effectiveness without a reset period, opportunity cost would cripple you.

I think about working out. After a certain point, if you do another rep you’re just hurting yourself, you’re not building muscle. You then have to give your body time to rest and repair before you can come back. Thank goodness! The universe gives you built-in breaks.

If you grind without limit, you’re not just damaging other aspects of your life, sacrificing them to the grind. You’re actually damaging the grind.

Be ambitious. Be goal-oriented. Be driven. These are excellent things.

But for the love of all that is holy, be efficient. And that means naps, people. Food. Strolls in the sunshine. Lunches on the beach. Reading things because you want to.

Don’t feel guilty! The rules of the world are tipped in your favor, here. Sometimes, in order to be the best you can be, you need to get the rest you deserve.

Two Years (and One Day)

It flew by me. Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the first post on The Opportunity Machine.

I thought I’d have run out of things to say by now. But it turns out that if you keep living, you keep finding new things to think about.

I’ve done an awful lot of playing and experimenting here. I’ve trialed weekly or monthly features, some of which stuck around for a while, others only happened once, and some are still going. I’ve played around with how I’ve presented my ideas as much as with what ideas I’ve presented.

I’ve had neat milestones, too. The first “fan” I had. The first time I learned that someone had shared one of my posts with her peers of her own volition. The first time (recently!) that someone wrote about this blog. I’ve enjoyed all that very much.

Here’s the huge value-add for me though: since I’ve been writing a daily blog now for two years, that means I’ve written over seven hundred entries. Gun to my head I probably couldn’t name more than 30 from memory. That means that this blog has magnified the power of my memory by more than twentyfold. Thoughts I’ve had that would otherwise have vanished into thin air are now preserved in some way, to be built upon and reviewed and perhaps even disagreed with by a future version of me. But they mean something in a way that a thought you don’t remember doesn’t.

Both of my grandfathers lived incredibly interesting lives, but both died many years ago – my maternal grandfather when I was only 7, and my paternal grandfather before I was even born. They have great stories, but I’ve only ever gotten to hear them second-hand. Snippets and collections of lives that I would have loved to experience more.

I have three children, and I also have a pretty interesting life. It’s not wild to presume that one day I may have grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, and so on – and that they may one day want to know more about how I thought, how I lived, what was important in my life. Perhaps to view their own parents through eyes that saw them as children, or to trace back the origins of whatever values I ultimately pass down to them.

Maybe it will just be me, many years hence, who wants to look back through the eyes of a younger man in a different world and look at the same point in time from both directions.

This blog is part self-help advice column, part chronicle of strange adventures, part campfire stories and part amateur psychology course. It’s more, too – much more.

What it isn’t though – is ending.

See you tomorrow.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

Don’t harbor an exorbitant degree of loyalty to losing strategies. Certainly don’t wind your identity up in them.

You do things, and some of those things work. Some don’t. But who you are doesn’t have to be defined by any particular act or even set of acts. If you switch to a meatless diet for health reasons, you don’t have to suddenly “be” a Vegetarian(tm), especially if later it turns out that the diet isn’t working for you.

Not every challenge is zero-sum, of course. Many aren’t; just because you didn’t succeed at something doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else did, nor at your expense. But maybe a strategy won where yours didn’t, and it’s foolish not to look at that strategy and see what you can take from it.

The biggest thing that keeps people from doing that is identity. They wrap their egos up in a course of action and make it part of who they are, instead of saying “this didn’t work, so I don’t need it.”

Sometimes the circumstances of a choice have near-zero consequences, so you don’t need to care. You don’t have to switch which football team is your favorite just because your favorite team hasn’t won in a while, because it doesn’t matter. But if you’re actually betting, and not just cheering? Cheer for whoever you want, wear whatever colors you want… but bet like the money in your wallet is worth more than which color shirt you’re wearing.

Subtraction

I was reading recently that when it comes to improving your life (or some aspect of it), people mostly default to looking for additive changes, ignoring subtractive ones. The feel like their life is missing something, so they look to add to it: Start doing yoga, get that fancy gadget, take that medicine, go on that vacation, find that special someone, apply for that promotion, and so on.

Only a very small group of people will default to looking instead at subtractive solutions. Add it to the list of ways I’ve discovered that I diverge from the typical person in my civilization.

I always look first to figure out what you can get rid of to solve a problem. If I feel like my life (or an aspect thereof) isn’t what I want it to be, I look for stuff to exorcise. Like cutting words out of a lengthy essay or a tumor out of your stomach, removing things generally feels like improving things to me.

There’s this joke where people use the term “retail therapy” to mean “when I’m sad, I buy myself something to cheer myself up.” But if I want to cheer myself up, I throw stuff away. If I need to be less stressed, I really just need to do less stuff.

Some people look at five objects and a shelf that only fits four and think “I need a new shelf.” I look at that and say “which of these objects am I throwing away today?”

Try it. The next time something feels wrong, try solving it by taking something away instead of by adding something. If nothing else, it’ll be a change of pace for most people and maybe lead to more creative thinking. But for some, it may just be exactly the change you need.