Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

choosing to see love

A Child of the ’80′s Chooses Life

For me it happened at about age 15. I’d just finished what was the darkest year of my teenage angst, and I was not a happy camper. I had pouted and brooded my way most of the way through, unhappy with the same things as most ’80′s teens in the U.S. Nuclear proliferation, Iran contra, lack of access to MTV, whether or not Michelle actually liked me or was she just asking about algebra homework because I was a nerd…

I don’t know what it was exactly that turned the corner. I do remember feeling very alone, very hopeless. I was certain I would never be in love, because while all my friends seemed to be dating, I was the nerd, the weirdo. It may also have had something to do with being given the book Time Enough for Love by my Sunday school teacher. Whatever it was, it resulted into a personal manifesto: If no one’s going to love me, I’ll show them – I’ll love everybody!

Impeccable teen logic.

Beginning Studies in Loveology

I tackled it in exactly the same way I’d approached (and, to be fair, still approach) everything else that’s ever attracted my interest, from astronautics to small-businesses: immersion. I got books on love: Buscaglia, Moore, Bach, Aristotle, Hesse. I listened to love songs, not just between people but about life (Howard Jones became my obsession). I watched movies about love, read plays, studied Rilke and cummings and the sonnets. I cried at the end of Tennyson’s tale of Gareth and Lynette.

IMG_0839.JPGI changed the way I dressed, picking out ridiculous pastels and bright colors. I joined drama club, swing choir, I joined two jazz bands, madrigals, a barbershop quartet, I . Not satisfied with a basic knowledge of the birds and the bees, I studied advanced ornithology and entymology.

And did I love? Of course I did! I believed that everyone was capable of love. I knew that people were good, at heart, and even if they seemed to not be so good, they were like the Grinch, just waiting for their hearts to grow a size or two. Like many a book-learner I often mistook the map for the territory and ideas that looked great on paper that for some reason didn’t seem to work so well when faced with real live people with real live emotions.

I got hurt. I hurt others. Many of the lessons were learned the hard way. Many came with unexpected blessings, too. I wouldn’t trade my daughters for anything, for example – but I sure wish I’d been able to find an easier way to get them. I suspect my ex-wife does, too. Likewise I will always be proud to be a Marine – but that came at the price of several other dreams and aspirations.

All’s Well That Ends, Except It Doesn’t

While I like to think I’ve learned and improved my skills at love (short answer: it’s all about communication) I had it pointed out to me recently that I seem to have retained a basic optimism in regards to relationships. “You always tend to see and expect the best of people,” was the way it was expressed.

It surprised me. I’ve made a fairly extensive layman’s study of human and societal behavior, and if you asked me to describe human nature in one word, it would probably be ugly. If you gave me another word, I’d probably add fearful.

For me the outcome of all this research is definitely a kind of sadness and also worry that we can be too fast, we humans, we can get too fast into intergroup conflicts, which don’t make any sense to anyone, that we start to harm each other, that we start innocent people to kill each other for something that at the end of the day could have been decided in a much more reasonable way.

Benedikt Herrmann (quoted above from a Freakonomics Podcast), is a sociologist who coined the term homo rivalis to replace the idea of homo economicus. To put it another way, we aren’t so much motivated by what is good for us as the idea that we want to make sure the other guy has less.

It’s just an idea, of course, but it’s a remarkably easy one to accept given events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, or Gaza and the West Bank, or the Ukraine, or Syria, or Boston or any number of other places.

But it’s also why the third word I’d use to describe humanity is adversarial. We like to compete against challenges. When the challenges are natural, we work together to overcome them, and when things get too comfortable, we find something else to compete about. If we’re lucky it’s competitive farming, or who can raise the nicest children, but more often it’s more violent.

Choose Your Lens

That’s ok. That very adversarial nature is what makes some fight against the fear and ugliness to create beauty – through acts of heroism, charity, humor, kindness, which we can find everywhere. Especially in the areas where things are worst, because when it’s darkest it doesn’t take much more than a match to cut through the shadows and illuminate things.

So that’s why I choose to see the best in people. It’s selfish: I know it’s probably not true, but I enjoy my life more by looking at it that way. By choosing love over hate, generosity over scarcity, and optimism over pessimism. It’s not a blindness; rather it’s a deliberate way of seeing. Or, to put it another way:

Of course the game is rigged. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.
–Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love

how to make sense of a chaotic world

Framing Ferguson


It’s a troubling time in America. More than usual.

The events in Ferguson Missouri have affected not just the national dialogue on racism, on police, on the use of force, the right to protest, and what the term “civil rights” really means.

Yet I am hesitant to comment on it directly, for a variety of reasons. The biggest being *I am not there*. Instead I try to listen to the news sources, to the live feeds of protestors, to my friends who are affected to varying degrees. I certainly have my own opinions, but I’m aware that they are at best half-formed, affected by the ways news outlets portray the events as well as the ways people on the ground report what is happening to them.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not every opinion is equally valuable. Similarly, everyone frames the story in their own way – but some frames are more useful than others.

Rough Edges

For example, one of the biggest head-shaking moments was when the police released a video that they alleged was Michael Brown aggressively robbing a store moments before he was shot. At the same time they acknowledged that the officer who did the shooting had not been aware of the robbery. The obvious question to follow was: then why bring it up? It was not only an attempt at a distraction, it was a clumsily obvious one.

Later investigative reporting revealed that even the irrelevant tape was an edited version. The portion that was cut out showed Michael Brown paying for the cigars he had allegedly stolen. Not only an attempt at a cover-up, a clumsy attempt at one.

And that’s just one tiny facet of the whole situation. It’s easy to want to just turn it off and tune it out. I know that following the #Ferguson hashtag on twitter is like trying to drive past a gruesome accident scene – you don’t want to look, but you can’t help it, whether it’s reading the atrocities happening at night or reading the atrocities uttered by hateful people during the day.


A Bigger Container

About the only useful thing I can think of at a time like this is the cultivation of perspective. Understanding that this is not just about a scared cop and a young man. It is not just about law enforcement, it is not just about race, it is not just about anything. It is not new, it is simply current, and if we have any hope of reducing things from happening like this again it is through finding a place of understanding.

The most harmful thing I can think of would be to ignore it. To refuse to engage in dialogue, to pretend that it doesn’t affect you, wherever you are in the world. If the citizens of the West Bank and Gaza can pay attention, then you can, too. And the people involved – all of whom are human beings, scared, trying their best to make sense of chaos – deserve to be witnessed.

It’s also important to recognize that the world is full of dangers that we haven’t even thought of and also full of joy. It’s hard, but we can find room in our heart for both.

It’s good exercise. Try it out.

just do the next thing

I’m just no good at life! – almost everyone, at some point.

Eldest daughter has been having a rough time of it the last couple of days. With her permission, I get to share a little of it, because it’s a great illustration of a couple of solid survival practices.

But He’s My Little Baby!

First Grandson Harvey begins school in ten days. That makes it time to register, and if you’ve never experienced trying to get a child registered for school you’ve really missed out on some of the best examples of bureaucracy-in-action that our society has to offer. Health forms, questionnaires, releases, schedules, equipment lists, physical education waivers, instrument rentals, field trip forms…it’s truly a dizzying amount of paperwork. That’s at the best of times. My daughter was perfectly willing to jump through all the hoops and joyfully release her son into the wilds of the public school system, except for one obstacle: They didn’t believe in him. More to the point, they told her that she couldn’t register him without his birth certificate. She had his social security card, she had his immunization records, she even thought she could get a record of birth from the hospital in Arcata, CA, where he was born. But no, the administrator told her. It had to be a birth certificate. Nothing else was acceptable.

The Ragged Edge

Eldest Daughter's shared her crap with me since the day we met...

Eldest Daughter’s shared her crap with me since the day we met…

It was at this point that I’m very happy to say that Eldest Daughter called me. I’m happy that she thinks of me as a resource for her, and I talked with her about various options and strategies. We talked about the ways to try and get the record from Arcata (which looked to take months) but also about actions to take here. Who did we know in administration? Who could we bring with us to speak before the school board at the next public meeting? What were the options of home schooling him if we couldn’t get him enrolled this year? At the same time she was dealing with this overwhelming personal sense of failure. She felt that she had failed her son, that she’d ruined his life, that she was a bad mom. She said “I don’t know how you did it with the four of us, Dad, I can’t even do it with one!” That just about broke my heart. The last thing I ever want is for my daughter to hold up my experiences with the four of them as some kind of standard. Yes, I’m proud of the fact that they all ended up wonderful women – but that was despite the way they were raised, not because. However, I could give her one piece of advice: You wanna know how I did it? I just did the next thing in front of me. There was no big picture. The big picture was too bleak. The big picture was too much. But I could break it down into the next thing I had to do, and I did it. Over and over again, until it got less scary, until I started seeing those obstacles behind me, not in front of me. Fill out the next form. Cook the next meal. Wash the next dish. Whatever it took. So with Eldest Daughter we talked about making lists. There was a California list, with all the things that needed to happen to get the birth certificate. There was also the Madison list, with the phone calls and strategies for what to do if we couldn’t get the right paperwork. She calmed down, breathed, even when the dear boy came up and said “Mommy, why can’t I go to school?” I swear, children can be more cruel than anyone imagines.

Deus Ex Machina

This is the part where you know I am writing a blog about reality, not making stuff up. If I were creating this as a story, there would be a series of struggles overcome until a triumphant climax with lessons learned through perseverance and toil. Ad astra per aspera. Instead, a few minutes after I hung up the phone with a still-scared but more-prepared daughter, I got a text from her:

Oh good god. I just called the school back and asked “What’s it gonna take to let him start?” They put me on hold and she comes back and says “Oh, you know, what I said before was wrong – his immunization record will do fine.”

This was followed by another text:


…which she later told me was the hysterical laughter that happened with the sudden relief of pressure. Because that’s the other reason to keep doing the next thing, and just keep doing it. Because there are forces out there moving in mysterious ways, and suddenly things can change completely. You can’t count on it – sometimes the miracle is just that you suddenly discover that you’ve done the last thing that you needed to do. But when it does happen, what else can you do but laugh? And then look around for what the new next thing is. When you don’t know what to do next, that means it doesn’t really matter. Just do the next thing, whatever it is.

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Rituals, Doing what you love, and “Far Enough”?

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should you do what you love?

Love & Other Disasters

In episode 30 of the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast there is an interview with sports writer David Epstein, in which they talk extensively about that infamous “10,000 hour” rule. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and is based heavily on the work of a Dr. Ericsson from Princeton.

Basically, it posits that in order to reach mastery of any cognitively-demanding occupation it requires, on average, 10,000 hours (usually about a decade) of deliberate practice. It’s kind of funny watching the way academics, trainers, personal development writers (mea culpa) and others have argued back and forth about what this really signifies. There’s lots of “But what about X situation?” rebutted with “We never said X! You’re building a straw man!” and more.

Which is fine for academics and writers, but Mr. Epstein’s objection is less theoretical and more direct. The untempered belief in this “rule” has caused it to be applied in situations it was never intended for. What is more, it is actually having the opposite of its intended effect.

Early specialization cuts short a period when young athletes would otherwise sample a wide variety of sports and robs them of the opportunity to stumble upon their best fit, Epstein says. “Though narrowly focused child prodigies fascinate us and garner media attention, it turns out that later specializers are more the norm than the exception,” – The Washington Post

Stumbling Upon Happiness

While it’s also the title of one of my favorite books, it caught my eye when the same verb was used in Epstein’s interview. How many of us give ourselves the chance to “stumble upon our best fit”? Instead, we are often paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing.

Our parents and teachers and mentors often help us in this paralysis by stressing how important it is to choose the right college, the right major, the right partner, sometimes even the right haircut for the school yearbook!

While it’s true that small changes and decisions can have far-reaching implications in our lives, it is the essence of hubris to assume that we know what those decisions are. As Dan Gilbert’s work, among others, has shown we are ridiculously inept at predicting what will make us happy. So what’s a hopeful happy person to do? How can we choose?

Cloudy, with a Chance of Luck

There are very convincing arguments against doing what you love as a career. Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is one of many personal development folks who will tell you that it’s entirely wrong to assume that the thing you love is going to make you happy. His argument is that it’s much better to use strategies to learn to love what it is you do.

Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

Personally, I think that idea has some merit – certainly mindfulness practice can turn the most mundane thing into a joy. There are some flaws to that argument, though. I had a job that was fairly lucrative working in web marketing – but we were selling things that were actually detrimental to the lives of the people who bought them. My job was to hide this fact in the advertisement so that we could sell them as fast as possible. Could I ever have learned to love that job? I doubt it.

When it comes to following your passion, though, why does it have to be one or the other?

“The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.” — Cavilo, The Vor Game

I like the idea of combining this old TV trope (also known as the Xanatos Gambit, with a principle of Zen archery:

Loose the arrow, and what it strikes you call “the target.”

A good example of this is Edison’s response when someone talked about how he’d failed 10,000 times to find a working filament for his lightbulbs. “I have not failed,” he famously replied. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

I’ve commented a few times that I’m currently at a place in my life where I’m happier than I’ve ever been, especially in terms of my work. Let’s take a moment and look at some of the paths I took to reach this point:

dancer became marine became cook became preschool teacher became multimedia designer became TV engineer became video editor became web content specialist became public speaker became writer.

Along the way I earned a degree in Inter-Arts Technology (Dance), learned Tagalog, gained expertise in some specialized performing arts, led a church choir, traveled to Europe, performed in community theaters, and took up cigars. Apparently, that was my path to happiness. Why didn’t my guidance counselor have a pamphlet for that? What if I had picked one thing – say, preschool teacher – and devoted the 10,000 hours to becoming an expert. Would I be as happy?

It’s a trick question. The answer is “unknown”; we can never actually know the destinations to which the roads not traveled led. The thing is, it doesn’t matter, because we can’t change the past; all we can do is choose what to do next.

The Burden of Choice

That’s where we freeze up. Especially if we’re not happy where we are, then the thought of choosing wrong again and possibly ending up somewhere even worse keeps us from taking steps in any direction other than the one we’re heading. The status quo is always easier than change.

The problem is that the idea of “right or wrong” in terms of choices suffers from an imperfect metaphor. As Sean West put it in a recent podcast (well worth checking out!),

People see it as 360º of options and if they pick the wrong one then they’re heading in the wrong direction. But it’s not really 360º of options, it’s more like a starting line with a bunch of arrows pointing forward. You’re going to find that one thing leads to the next. Pick one and start.

So yes, you should do what you love. You should also do what you don’t love in a different way to see if you can learn to love it. You should do that thing you never thought you’d like on the off chance you’re wrong. You should do that thing you did when you were little to see if you still like it, and you should do that thing you have to do in both mindful and mindless ways to see if it changes have to to want to. Do all the things. Or as many as you feel like.

Every one, even the ones that seem like a waste of time, will have taught you something. If you fail, you’re being given a chance to practice losing gracefully and building resilience and keeping on. You’re becoming a Renaissance person! Go you!

I’ll close with a quote from one of the most influential writers I’ve ever read. I cringe at that, sometimes, but this particular quote has served me well, and perhaps it will inspire you as it inspired me:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

The Defining Moment: Far Enough?

The Saddest Word is “Almost”

"Reach" courtesy James Jordan, Flickr CC

“Reach” courtesy James Jordan, Flickr CC

Now that you’ve gone through the objective “Positive/Negative” evaluation of your Defining Moment experience, it’s time to go back to your gut.

Did you go far enough?

Much like the question “did you like it?” this is one where the answer will be immediate, followed by a whole bunch of rationalizations. “Well, I maybe could have done it more…” or “What if I would have done this instead of that?” You think about ways you might have taken it further, or perhaps went too far.

It’s ok – cut yourself some slack, already! Go back to the fact that you did it at all in the first place. You did all that preparation, you have stacks of worksheets, and you took the chance on getting what you want.

Stop over-thinking it.

But What if the Answer is “Not Far Enough”?

That’s the hard part. Because in this “choose-your-own-adventure” process, this is the part where I have to say: Go back to part 4: Plan and re-calibrate what “Far Enough” means. You have new information now to factor in along with all the rest of the resources, actions, and also a better idea of what the actual risks are.

It’s entirely possible that the main lesson you’ve learned is that you don’t want this particular thing after all! I remember at one open conference I facilitated an attendee came up and said he had prepared for weeks to give his presentation, because he’d always wanted to be a professional speaker.

“Great!” I told him. “How did it go?”

“It went great!” he said. “Because I figured out that I really don’t want to be a presenter after all!” Personally, I consider facilitating that particular moment of self-discovery a service not only for him but for scores of future conference attendees.

But if the Answer is “Almost…”

Anything worth doing is worth doing twice on the off chance you did it wrong the first time – Int. Assoc. of Skydivers

More often, though, we realize that we just didn’t get it quite right the first time. We caught a glimpse of that Moment we’re striving for, got a taste of that feeling…but somehow we fell a little short.

Nothing to do but pick up the pieces and start over. I’m sorry to tell you that; I know, it’s a lot of work. Especially if it was something that was hard to set up in the first place, it may seem daunting. Or even impossible.

It’s not impossible. It’s just hard. It just takes tenaciousness. One thing that everyone who got what they wanted has in common: they stuck around long enough to get it.

And I can tell you with absolute surety: if you came close to getting what you really want, and you don’t try again – it will haunt you forever.

So save the ghost labor, save yourself hours of staring at the ceiling late at night with a mind full of what if and try again. And again. As many times as are necessary.

Did you go far enough?

DAMN RIGHT I did! What’s next?

don’t let ritual get in the way of life

Gray Aft Agley

A little more than a month ago my partner and I had a very private commitment ceremony. After six years together, it was time to express the intention of continuing to weave our lives together. Being the theatrical romantic that I am, I decided to surprise her.

Just after dawn a close friend would bring her to a sacred labyrinth in a wooded clearing, where I would wait in the center with talismans of our commitment in hand and words of love on my lips. She would walk the path to reach me, we would share that private ritual, and we would trace the path out of the labyrinth together as we continued our joined lives.

That was the plan, at least. I’ve written about plans before, though, and this was no exception.


Gray Plans; God Laughs

The reality had a few extra variables thrown in. Such as rain coming down when I arrived at the labyrinth. Coming down fairly steadily, in fact. Also, my dear friend and cohort happened to oversleep, which meant that I was standing there (in the rain) for much longer than I’d expected.

In fact, I gave up; I headed back to our cabin, and of course ran into my just-woken and very-apologetic friend on the way. After a quick re-calibration, they went to get my partner and I headed back to the labyrinth. Standing in the center, as the rain lessened to a soft drizzle, I watched and waited.

There is likely a special hell created for people like me who make plans for their partners at early hours when caffeine is not readily available. My poor partner had not had days and weeks of looking forward to this moment, and being faced with the task of tracing, without coffee, a path to where I waited in the center was somewhat daunting. Her words were both profound and prophetic as she moved unknowing, step by step, towards our declaration of commitment:

Where…whuh…I don’t understand why this…WHERE is this going? Why does it keep winding back and forth?!? I need coffee!

Every word rang so true!

When she arrived at the center, of course, she saw what I was holding, saw the look in my eyes, and everything from there on was as beautiful and poignant as an azure butterfly flapping slowly in the rain (thanks for that, by the way, powers-that-be. It was a nice touch).

And as I related this story to a friend over lunch today, she laughed with me at the way plans can go awry – but then she got a thoughtful look.

You know, it reminds me of how we sometimes let our ceremonies get in the way of reality. Sure, you had your plans, and they were all well and good – but what you got was not just the ceremony, what you got was real life!”

I’ve got very smart friends.

We practice for many reasons: to change habits, to reach goals, to polish the self-image we carry around. Yet it bears saying that sometimes the ritual can lose the original purpose and become an end unto itself. There’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes it’s just fun, or just feels good.

It’s important, though, to pay attention when things don’t go as planned. It’s entirely possible that things are actually not going as planned, but instead they’re going exactly as they should. In those circumstances, rather than trying to fight against life, perhaps it’s better to try a different tack.

Perhaps, to repeat the metaphor: it’s better to just join in and laugh along with God.

measure success with love

“Ya Got Trouble, My Friend…”

“Oh, this is a refined operation, son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train outta town.”
- Harold Hill, the Music Man


…but only a moment!

In my process of writing The Defining Moment there has been a task moving closer as I inch through the table of contents and near the release of the book. I’m dreading this task with a strange unease, a feeling that my hands, still glowing with the joy of creation, are about to be dipped in a tub of filth and putrid effluvia.

It’s called the Sales Page.

It’s not a difficult process – in fact, it’s been refined so much that everyone from style consultants to the 4-Hour God Tim Ferriss himself use it. I’ve created more than a few for clients in my work as a copy writer and web designer.

Yet for some reason putting The Defining Moment into that sales machine has all the appeal of putting a kitten in a sausage maker. I apologize for the gruesome analogy, but it’s taken me a while to really figure out what it is about that process – the process that has proven successful for many authors, the process that is proven to work – that feels so disingenuous and inauthentic.

“The Caliber of Disaster”

The problem is that the whole strategy behind that kind of page is as formulaic and manipulative as Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson’s Music Man (who, I should add, I had the honor of playing during my senior year). It’s a process of inflation: your own credentials, the value of your product, and the problems it purports to solve among other things. There’s the creation of a sense of urgency (“Normally $500, order today and you’ll get it for only $250!”).

It’s all over the web, and it’s there for a reason: because it works. And surely I want my book to be a success, right?

That depends on what you consider success, actually. Here’s a section of the First Things First Manifesto, a call for more accountability among information professionals:

“…We have negated our professions’ potential for positive impact, and are using up our time and energy manufacturing demand for things that are redundant at best, destructive at worst.”

It’s a noble sentiment, and seems to be a great recognition of the need for more ethical creative work…until you realize the Manifesto was originally released in 1964, and then re-released in 1999. Now it’s being circulated again, a quarter century later, because it’s needed more than ever.

That’s why there won’t be a sales page based on the formula that works for The Defining Moment. The fact that something is effective does not make it ethical.

The answer from a lot of professionals to that kind of idealism is to shake their heads with a smirk at my charming naivety and say something like “Well, that’s fine, then, we’ll just save this kind of sales page for info products that want to be successful.

I would not bother to reply, since they would not listen. But I would certainly be thinking “If that’s what it takes to be successful, perhaps you need to re-examine your understanding of that word.

The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers…if you are not rooted in the things that move you, then you’re not really going to be able to produce things that are meaningful. You’re just simulating what it is like to be a person who feels those things, right?
- Maria Popova in an interview with 99U

If you want to hear bitter laughter, go into a coffee shop filled with freelancers and say, quite loudly, “Do what you love, and the money will follow!” That first-world promise has been both liberator and desolator for countless people coming into the workforce just as the idea of “job security” became more urban legend than reality. I was one of them, enamored of Free Agent Nation with dreams of being the next Hillman Curtis.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead I learned through poverty what my cousin Adrian can teach through a book: the joys of minimalism and the luxury of doing a lot with a little. These were not lessons learned happily; they were mingled with feelings of failure and inadequacy.

Perhaps that phrase was translated (from the original Klingon) incorrectly. It should read “Do what you love and wealth will follow.” Or, more succinctly: “Do what you love and you’ll love what you’ve done.

The Defining Moment is a labor of love for me, and yes, of course I want it to be successful. I would love to continue the trend that’s been taking place on my Patreon page, where Megan and Heather joined others to support the work here at Love Life Practice. There’s no lie that money is a form of energy, and even a $1/month patronage helps keep me going both physically and mentally.

While that is a measure of success, it is not the measure. What would our lives be like if we stopped trying to only measure success in terms of numbers, statistics, dollars and percentages?

What if you chose to measure it by the love in the life you practice? What would our world look like then?

“Great and wondrous things; made by great and wondrous people; who dream great and wondrous dreams; about making the world a great and wondrous place.” – Umair Haque

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The Defining Moment: Positive & Negative

“You Keep on Using That Word…” – Inigo Montoya

When someone says something discouraging, have you ever remarked – either out loud, or to yourself – that “negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well” or something to that effect?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this – and don’t worry, you’re safe, no one is watching. It’s ok, I’ve done it too. But some of you are smiling, because you know what I’m about to say, and the rest of you are wondering what the big deal is. That’s fine, this is one of my personal crusades, along with championing the Oxford comma and the acting prowess of Keanu Reeves. Say it with me:

Positive adds. Negative subtracts. Good and bad have nothing to do with it.

Vedomatic 9 volt type 006 P Long life batteryThe idea of “positive” and “negative” reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in psychology. It’s usually used in behavioral conditioning situations. However, it is not the idea that making someone feel good is “positive” and making them feel bad is “negative.” These are interpretations that humans put on the words. Positive and negative reinforcement has as much to do with good and bad as a plus or minus sign in arithmetic.

Which is good: 3+4 or 6-2? The question doesn’t really make any sense, does it? Same with positive and negative reinforcement. Positive simply means you add something (“Here, have a cookie!”). Negative reinforcement means you take something away (“No more cookies for you!“). Those examples may seem to be following the good/bad paradigm, but it’s easy to flip them. How about the positive reinforcement of playing the Trololo song at high volume on repeat? Makes for a pretty good “enhanced interrogation technique”, but I wouldn’t call it “good.” If you changed your behavior in the way I wanted and I turned off the music, that would be negative reinforcement – but I sincerely doubt anyone would consider it bad.

Now you know, and you can join the growing ranks of those who do not misuse the phrase.

What’s the Link to the Defining Moment?

We’ve already covered your gut reaction to the Defining Moment. The idea of good/bad in terms of feeling has already been determined.

This frees us up to take a look at the results of whatever it is we did with a clear head. We can start to look at the positive and negative effects of having the defining moment not as a “good/bad” dichotomy, but rather simply as two questions:

What did this add to my life?


What did this remove from my life?

Like the other exercises in the Defining Moment process, I like to do this with a big blank piece of paper, just writing things in. “I no longer wonder what skydiving feels like,” negative. “I have a sprained ankle from not landing quite right,” positive. “I have a new podcast to connect with other people,” positive. “Diana became my fifth Patron! She rocks!”, positive. “There’s so much more writing to do, I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure,” negative.

By writing things out like this you can get a more accurate view of the actual effects of that Defining Moment in your life. That will be essential in a few chapters, when you ask the all-important question:

Do I want to do this again?

But that’s foreshadowing. There’s a few more things to do before that, and we’ll go on to the next step in a week, when we look at just how good we were at predicting the outcome. Here’s a hint, but don’t stress it: if you’re like most people, not very.

change your habits to hack your mind

Getting Out of Your Groove

Recently one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, wrote a column in the TOR newsletter about how he challenged himself with his latest book, Lock In. It wasn’t a huge challenge, on the surface: he simply did not allow himself to use semi-colons. For most non-writers and perhaps even most writers, this would not be a big deal. For Mr. Scalzi, though, it was quite the challenge:

…you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them…I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.

Aside from his history of punctuation abuse Mr. Scalzi also enjoys a tremendously successful reputation as a writer. His novel Red Shirts won the coveted Hugo Award last year, and his Old Man’s War series replaced Heinlein and Bujold as my favorite military sci-fi. That begs the question: why would he change things up when things seem to be going so well for him?

the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.

Simple Changes for Complex Benefits

How about that: eliminating a semi-colon as a tool for self-awareness! That’s always a good thing (though not always a comfortable one; personally, while I don’t have a problem with semi-colons, my addiction to commas and parenthetical asides is, charitably speaking, ridiculous). Mr. Scalzi is doing more than that when he changes things up. The self-awareness is the surface level. There’s much more going on underneath the hood.

By forcing his brain to take different paths and methods he is literally making his brain bigger and stronger. It’s true! Research into neuroplasticity has revealed that the brain is more adaptable than people would have ever expected. An example: black-cab drivers in London have a measurably larger hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with navigation) compared their fellow bus drivers. The research indicates that black-cab drivers develop this extra capacity because they have to constantly come up with new routes as opposed to bus drivers who travel the same path daily.

But wait, there’s more. Remember resilience? It’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” A University of California guide to build up personal resilience includes guidelines such as “Take Clear Actions”, “Progress Towards Your Goal”, and of course “Accept Changes as Part of Life.” Like any other skill, each of these gets better with practice. Changing a simple habit gives you the power to make decisions that lead towards your goal of changing something.

No, taking out a semicolon isn’t a huge change. But it does build up resilience-muscles for when a big change might be necessary.

The Spanish Inquisition Strategy

There's something I forgot to tell you...

“There’s something I forgot to tell you…”

There’s one other pretty fun and slightly evil reason to change up your habits: no one expects it! People are interested in things that change, whether it be blog pages or governments, and by being someone who tries new things you will draw attention. The literal definition of “stunt” is to do something unusual that others don’t normally do. Keep in mind it may be people pointing fingers and saying “What the heck are they doing?” but you can just smile on the inside of your growing brain with the strength of resilience.

In other words, all these little lifehacks and changes may seem silly, and many of them are. Do you really need a more efficient way to peel a banana? Probably not. Then again, pumping the handles on that elliptical isn’t getting me anywhere, either. But both will improve your ability to practice and not only survive change but thrive in it.

As another great science fiction writer put it:

is the one unavoidable, 
ongoing reality of the universe. 
To us, 
that makes it the most powerful reality, 
and just another word for 

Earthseed: The Books of the Living
Lauren Oya Olamina” 
― Octavia E. Butler



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