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.

Creating Your Own Opportunity Machine

Richard Branson’s first business was Virgin Records. He’d started selling records via mail order in 1970, and by 1972 he had Virgin Records, the first of what would be more than four hundred companies.

Stefani Germanotta sang beautiful piano-accompanied songs and experimented with avant-garde dance music before becoming Lady Gaga and launching three incredible pop albums in five years, building a tremendous brand and establishing a tremendous recognition base. Now she can create any kind of music she wants, doing duet albums with Tony Bennett and making powerful emotional art like Joanne.

Jeff Bezos sold books online, and now Amazon runs half the world. Guy Fieri had a place called “Johnny Garlic’s” in California in 1996, and now he’s, well, he’s Guy Fieri. Elon Musk’s first company was called Zip2, a company that made freakin’ city guides for newspapers, and you probably didn’t even know that.

Here’s the central point of all of these examples: Once you “activate” an idea, activating future ideas becomes way, way easier.

Lots of people have good ideas. Hundreds, maybe thousands. And they sit in your brain forever for one of a hundred different reasons. Maybe you don’t have the resources to put them into action, or maybe you’re just not that motivated. But one of the big reasons people with lots of ideas don’t ever act on them is the sort of analysis paralysis that comes from having too many.

If you have 100 great ideas for a business, it can be just as daunting as having none. In your mind, you’re not choosing one idea to run with, you’re choosing to put a bullet in 99 and you just can’t do it. How can you abandon so many great concepts and focus on just one?

Here’s how: step one, recognize that it’s not choosing to focus on 100 ideas versus “just one.” It’s choosing to think about a hundred things and do nothing versus doing literally anything. Even the idea of “focusing” on a hundred things is ludicrous. You can only pick one.

Step two, recognize that you’re not putting 99 ideas in the grave in order to serve only one. What you’re actually doing is using that first idea to blaze a trail so that all the others can follow.

Richard Branson didn’t choose Virgin Records over Virgin Airlines, Mobile, Atlantic, or Trains. Stefani Germanotta didn’t choose to make pop albums instead of soulful ballads. They just picked one thing and did that first, and their success in that built them the machine that would produce all their other success.

Virgin Records was Richard Branson’s Opportunity Machine. The Fame was Lady Gaga’s. Your own Opportunity Machine can look like a lot of different things, but there are a few elements in common:

  • It will teach you how to turn an idea into reality. The idea or the reality or both might not be as good as you expected, but making that first thing real is a powerful ability to gain. Once you have it, you’ll always have it.
  • It will shape your life. Do you know why people have “empty nest” syndrome? It’s because once you shape your life around something big, like having kids, that shape stays even after the kids leave. Empty nesters are great babysitters (as everyone with a grandparent knows) not just because of their experience, but because of all the little things about their life that are already shaped around being prepared and able to support kids. Once you turn your life into a life that can “activate” ideas, it stays that way.
  • It will give you a foundation of credibility. The ability to communicate your idea to others is foundational. No one truly accomplishes anything alone – whether you have to convince employees to join you, people to listen to you, customers to buy from you, investors to give you money, or vendors to sell to you, the ability to make others believe in your ideas is a necessity. After the first time, that gets a lot easier. Do you think Elon Musk would have much trouble getting people to invest in a new company? And this is true even if your first idea wasn’t successful – someone who failed knows about a thousand times more than someone who didn’t try, and other people know that, too.

Taking action on a single idea now drags all of those other ideas you have closer to reality. Trying to make a decision without taking action is next to impossible, so take action and use the results of that action to guide your decision. If you still can’t decide, act more. You’ll never run out of steps to take. The engine in your Opportunity Machine can run forever.

Good Credit, Bad Credit

“How much credit should you seek” is a different question than “how much credit do you deserve?”

Something I reflect on pretty frequently is that I don’t like to think of opinions, thoughts, or ideas as “good/bad” or “right/wrong.” Rather, I like to think of ideas as either helpful or unhelpful.

Consider the following idea: “You are 100% in control of everything that happens to you. You have the ability to work through any obstacle with your choices and actions.” Is that idea right? Pretty obviously not. Even though I believe you have a great deal of control, only a fool would say it’s absolute. So the idea isn’t right, but is it helpful? I say that it is. Think about two opposite ideas: “You are 100% in control of your destiny,” as above, and “you have zero control over your fate; everything happens to you as a result of predetermined factors or other people’s influence. You can’t affect your own life in any way.”

Neither of those ideas is correct, but one is certainly more helpful than the other! If you believed the first idea, you’d work very hard in your life. Sometimes you’d put effort into lost causes, but most of the time you’d be a driving force for improvement and change in your life. If you put all your stock in that second idea, you’d be a hopelessly lost cause yourself, never trying (and therefore never accomplishing) anything.

So let’s get back to that idea of credit. There are a million situations where you could imagine deserving credit for something, but seeing how it would be more helpful to you to share it. Maybe you did the lion’s share of the work, but the other people who contributed less than you are nevertheless in a position to help you with your future goals. Is the value of “the credit you deserve” worth more to you than the value of the help you may receive?

One of the hardest things we ever have to give up is the concept of entitlement. Especially when, by all accounts, we actually do deserve the thing we feel entitled to.

There was once a man who saved up all of his money and invested in gold, purchasing a large bar of the stuff. Then he sailed across the ocean with his bounty, ready to use it to settle in a new land. A storm suddenly appeared and the man and his gold were thrown overboard. The man, unwilling to give up what was rightfully his, clutched his gold and refused to let go, even as it dragged him below the depths and he drowned.

That was his gold. He “deserved” it, as much as anyone can deserve anything. The gold being his was a “right” idea that was very, very unhelpful. That can be like credit – something you deserve, but will drown you if you cling to. Be careful about what you don’t let go of.

Responsible Uniqueness

Deviating from the norm in some capacity or another is almost always a strength, if you build the right framework to make it one.

First, a potentially controversial opinion: Statistical models about people are helpful. It’s helpful to know what the “average” person is likely to do, think, feel. It gives you a baseline that lets you live your life in a way that would be impossible if you could literally never predict anyone’s behavior.

I live in New Jersey, in the United States. That means (among other things), that if I walk into a store to purchase something, I have a reasonable expectation of what language that transaction is going to happen in, what comments will or won’t offend the people I buy from, and so on.

Now, I should make really, really clear that I’m not saying that the average, predictable model is the best of all possible versions of this (or any) scenario. I’m absolutely not saying that anyone should be forced into this model. Just because it’s useful for me to be able to predict that an interaction with a stranger is probably going to happen in a certain way doesn’t mean that it has to go down like that, or that I have any good reason to be upset if it doesn’t.

In fact, if everything fell right in the middle of the statistical average, this would be a boring and unproductive life. I hope the world continues to be wild.

But if you’re one of the people who does something that other people might not expect, there’s a good way to make your life easier. Consider yourself to be the one responsible for managing that deviation.

My father used to tell me that the way to avoid car accidents was to be predictable. Never do anything that would surprise any other drivers. Don’t stop suddenly, don’t turn without signalling, and so on. Allow others to predict your behavior easily and the interactions with those people (in this case, navigating around each other in cars) will go much more smoothly.

That’s good advice for life. If your goal is smooth interactions with other people, then be predictable in your social behavior. Don’t get mad about stuff that would surprise someone. Don’t veer into strange conversation topics without warning. In other words, when you want to deviate from the norm, signal first.

This isn’t you asking for permission to be you. A turn signal isn’t signaling you requesting permission to make a left. It’s you saying that you’re going to turn left, and you want other people to be aware of it so that turn goes smoothly. Sure, you could just turn without signaling – but then you might get hit, and if your goal was to not get hit, you messed up.

If you have a peanut allergy, a phobia of dogs, a traumatic reaction to loud noises, or a certain kind of common social interaction that you don’t like, then your life gets a lot easier if other people know about them. Some people are very gracious and will ask if anyone has a peanut allergy before even opening their own lunch, but you can’t count on that. The number of ways people can differ from the average is nearly infinite, and even the best-intentioned can’t check for all of them. Each of those things can be a strength – even a peanut allergy, which seems to be 100% negative, can give you insights into other people’s struggles or maybe steer you to delicious new recipes that you’d have never discovered if you could default to easy peanut butter sandwiches – but if you don’t “signal” then you’ll spend a lot of your life getting rear-ended by people who expected you to go straight when you were turning left.

Be unique. Be different, be weird, be fun, be cool. Please, don’t ever stop – the world needs you so much. But put a framework in place that gives the maximum possible benefit to both you and the world from that uniqueness. My impression is that people don’t want to do that because they sometimes don’t want to be seen as unique, or they fear that their uniqueness will become a weapon used against them by people who do want to “enforce the average.” Those aren’t invalid fears or thoughts, but I challenge you to give the world a chance. To beat the metaphor to death a little, I don’t think the people going straight are mad at the people turning left – they’re just mad at the ones who don’t signal first.

P.S.: It should go without saying, but it probably doesn’t: If someone does signal, you are the best kind of person if you do everything you can to make that go smoothly for the person who did so.

Marking Time

We count time in many ways, and most of them aren’t very scientific.

We count a lot of arbitrary things annually. A year is a convenient measuring tool, but nothing about the number 365 suggests that it’s an ideal block of time for learning or experiencing or developing.

We worry about deadlines, are eager about weekends. We waste fifteen minutes on nothing many times over, but would often kill for an extra fifteen minutes first thing in the morning. We think about how long it takes for a cup of tea to cool.

Our value of these moments varies wildly. I won’t watch a YouTube video that’s over eight minutes, but I’ll happily read for hours. I’ll spend a whole weekend on some leisure activity but I don’t like taking 20 minutes to make myself lunch.

These are the rhythms of your life, and it’s worth putting them in some sort of harmony. Think about the things in your life that you mark time against, and make sure that they have a flow to them that’s complementary. Don’t ignore the value you can gain by moving even a single minute from one activity to another. You can find great treasure hidden between breaths.

The Second Try

It is amazing to me just how much better you can get at something on only your second attempt.

There are just so many “first-time” mistakes that are literally just that – things that you only do while learning the most basic elements of a task. As soon as you’ve experienced even one cycle of actions and results, your understanding is an order of magnitude greater. Compared to someone who’s never done something, the person who’s done it once is an expert.

Despite this, the fear of those initial mistakes makes people not attempt the action at all. Or discourages them after that first attempt. “I made so many errors,” they say, “I must be terrible at it, so once was enough.”

Quitting right before it gets good is silly! The first-time mistakes don’t last, and once they’re out of the way you can have such a blast. That wall is paper thin – go break through it!