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Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the category “Life”

check your positivity ratio

How’s Your Day?

Quick, off the top of your head: has it been a mostly positive day? Or a mostly negative one? If you’re like me, you may be surprised at the results. I was thinking I was having a pretty good day – finished off a project for a client, got to see both my grandsons, spent some quality time with loved ones, heck, it was even payday! So when I took the the positivity ratio test on Dr. Barbara Frederickson’s website, I figured it would be a cinch to have it be pretty good.

The test is not as simple as “good/bad”. Instead, she takes several feelings – anger, inspiration, humiliation, joy – and asks, for each one, to what degree you felt it. Not at all? A little bit? Extremely? It’s a nuanced overview that gives what she terms a positivity ratio.

Now, the first time I did it, I didn’t realize we were only talking one day. I was looking at life in general. And I ended up with a 1:1 ratio, where just as many good feelings were there as bad feelings. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? It didn’t feel accurate to me, though; I honestly feel that my life is pretty good right now, bordering on awesome.

Then I caught the fact that it was supposed to be for the last 24 hours. Aha! That made all the difference. I went back, re-did the whole questionnaire…and did twice as well! That is to say, I ended up with a ratio of 2:1, with twice as many positive feelings as negative.

The problem is, life apparently grades on a curve when it comes to happiness. According to Dr. Erickson’s research, I shouldn’t feel bad about my score, but:

…research indicates that a positivity ratio of 3 to 1 is a tipping point. This ratio divides those who merely get by in life from those who truly flourish. If you scored below 3-to-1, you’ve got plenty of company! With more than 80% of U.S. adults falling short of Positivity’s 3-to-1 prescription, there’s immense room for improvement in the ways many of us live.

Three-to-one. Looks like there’s a lot of room for improvement. Not so surprisingly, Dr. Erickson has a book in which she offers tools and strategies for improving your ratio. I’ve read her previous work, Love 2.0, and she’s got some good ideas. But you don’t necessarily need to read it to start improving things now.

Fortune Favors the Observant Mind

If you’ve never seen the lovely movie Stranger Than Fiction, you now have a solid recommendation for your holiday viewing. In one part the protagonist is trying to figure out whether he has a chance with his love interest, and being an accountant, he starts counting. He has a little book where he puts in “good” and “bad” checkmarks based on his interactions with her.

I won’t spoil the movie by telling you what happens, but as a methodology it’s a remarkably effective way to record your good and bad moments. If you want to get a bit more technological, there are even apps like Happier or Expereal (iPhone) or T2 Mood Tracker or iMood Journal (Android) that give you nifty interfaces. There’s nothing wrong with simply using a good old paper notebook (remember those Field Notes?) to keep track.

See, here’s the thing – while I can rely on the memory of the day to try and figure things out, data is much more reliable, and often much more surprising. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in these years of writing and researching and life hacking, it’s that there are an awful lot of things that we simply take for granted. When you shine the light of data on them, you often find out that the way you thought things were – such as quality of life – is not remotely the way things are.

If you want to change something – say, be happier – first you have to measure it. Personally I’m going with Expereal, because it’s a pretty interface. I’m going to give it a week, and next week I’ll publish the results here. Here’s the neat part: since the goal is to have more positive than negative, simply the act of observing is likely to change my life for the better.

You can also send some positivity
in the form of supporting LLP
as a patron!


5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks (& 1 Thing To)

Happy Holidaze!

…or not. For many people, your erstwhile author included, the combination of winter cold and the societal expectations of the holiday season can be pretty depressing, or stressful, or both. “BE MERRY!” come the messages of the media and the world, combining with the usual endless litany of manufactured crises to support the 24-hour news cycle. Of course, this season in particular it’s not really necessary to manufacture crises, but the hearty ring of “Goodwill towards men…” might sound a bit hollow this time around amid hashtags of #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter.

Or maybe not. If you’re reveling in the holiday season with nary a care in the world, by all means, carry on! You don’t need this post. Meanwhile, for the rest of us:

5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks

  1. Binge on Reward Systems. I’m looking at you, SUGAR! Don’t reach for that donut, or open up all the advent days at once with the excuse I was just planning ahead! Yes, it will make you feel better for a while – that’s how sugar and glycemic index works. However, you’ll feel worse afterwards. Social media works the same way, as does just about any intermittent reward system that relies on jolts of dopamine to keep your attention. Instead, eat something healthy. No, it won’t help your mood. But it’ll keep you busy, and nourished, and ya gotta eat sometime, right?
  2. Feel guilty for feeling bad. Hey, moods happen. You don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s ok to let yourself feel bad for a while – sometimes that depressed mood is just like a mental band-aid, protecting a raw nerve while it heals, and you’ll be able to take it off when you’re ready. Give yourself permission to heal. It may be that a marathon of Middle Man is exactly the time-out your mood needs.
  3. Isolate yourself. No one wants to be around a Sally Sad-Face. I don’t want to bring people down. Excuses like these are not the healing happening – they are instead projections. Let me be harsh: who gave you control over what someone else wants? Who are you to decide whether or not they want to see you? Now, if you don’t want to see people, that’s another thing – introversion can be honored. But to decide what others want is often a way you deny what you actually do want – and that’s human contact. I recommend a coffee shop, not a mall, or family (blood or chosen, depending on your mood).
  4. Skip Working Out. For most people, serotonin regulation is a big part of mood, and (again, for most) exercise is a good way to pump things up. It doesn’t have to be Big Workout Time – a brisk walk or even some grumpy yoga will help. If you do it to the music of your youth (in my case, the 1980’s) it will almost certainly make you smile in that I can’t believe I used to like this song kind of way.
  5. Ignore the signs of clinical depression. If anything in this post makes you think I’m dismissing clinical depression as a case of “the blues”, please don’t. There are very real physical and psychological signs of the very debilitating condition of “the black dog”, and it’s important to get help if that’s the case. One possible indication: the first four things in this list that you didn’t do didn’t help.

1 Thing To Do When Life Sucks

  1. Something Really Nice for Yourself. A massage. A luxurious 2-hour cuddle nap. An uninterrupted hour with your favorite pen and a pile of blank paper. A ticket to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. A ride in a hot air balloon. Step outside of yourself, look at that person who is in need of cheering up (that’s you) and then think what you could do to make their day better. Not what you could do to cheer them up; not what you can do to make them feel better. What you can do to improve their world. Time will take care of the rest.

The 5 Elements of a Great Life

The Narrative Recipe

Recently I read an excellent article about the author Ursula K. Leguin. She spoke of “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing.

Image of Ursula Leguin courtesy of K. Kimball

Ursula K. Leguin,


  • The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  • The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  • The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  • The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  • The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Since we’ve already talked quite a bit about narrative life and writing your own tale (in fact, I’ve just started a company with the motto “Let’s tell your story.) it seems natural that these five elements might map to a larger picture.

To me, the parallels went something like this:

The Five Principal Elements of a Great Life
  • The patterns of your character: the way your values and beliefs have developed over your life; the conditioned responses that you may or may not be aware of.
  • The patterns of your environment: — Everything from the climate where you live (geologic, political, diverse) to your clothes, your desk, your vehicle, your kitchen, your favorite pen, whatever. These are the raw ingredients that your character has either acquired (or kept) in order to make up the story of your life, with all the sensory characteristics that go along with them.
  • The patterns of your view: the way character and environment combine to shape how you see the world. Do you cope with a starvation mentality or embrace a philosophy of abundance? Is everyone out to get you, are you trapped in a job, if it weren’t for bad luck would you have no luck at all? Or are you a fortunate soul filled with gratitude for the wonder of the world around you?
  • The patterns of the ideas: The kinds of ideas that your environment, your viewpoint, and your character combine to create. For example, “I need the new Xbox!” or “Wow, I could build a website…” or “I wish I had a better job, but I don’t know how to get one.” That last may seem to be a lack of an idea, but actually it’s an idea about a lack of ideas, and it’s definitely a product of the other principal elements. 
  • The patterns of the feelings: What we experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

In the article, Ms. LeGuin went on to explain:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story.

Trickle-Up Economics

One of the reasons this concept appeals to me is because it validates attention and awareness in all levels, from the arc of a life down to the choice of shoelaces, because it’s all part of the “Great Life.” When I’m surfing the IKEA website looking at desks, it’s not a waste of time – it’s my character wanting to shape the environment, because at a base level I know that it will trickle upward to my views, inspire new ideas, and that will make me feel good. It explains why there was one thing my ex-father-in-law said that has always turned out to be true: Buy quality and you never regret it.

None of it is trivial; instead, it is essential that all these parts be there working in harmony with each other with the goal of feeling- what? Ah, now there’s the question! What do you want to feel? Happy. Successful. Loved. Valued. Beautiful. Strong. There’s all kinds of answers to that. The real question should probably be: How well are the principal elements in your life helping you feel that way?

And the follow up is, of course: What are you gonna do about that?

Another reason the idea of writing as an analogy to life appeals to me is because it helps us understand some of life’s unfairness and variability.  There are extremely well-educated writers who produce dreadfully dull work as well as authors who break all the rules yet produce masterpieces (Ulysses, anyone?). You can have someone who is celebrated as a fantastic writer with every award possible – but you, particularly, don’t like their work. Likewise, you can look at someone who everyone idolizes as being the epitome of a Great Life yet it doesn’t appeal to you.

That’s ok. The world is large enough to contain both Madhuri Blaylock and Irvine Welsh and even produce an Emily Dickinson every once in a while.

The Valuable Experience of Failing

In the article, LeGuin also adds:

Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

…which is a long-known but oft-overlooked fact when we’re looking at Great Lives. The greatest are pretty much always built on failures, often tragic failures. Often it’s because someone is trying something unusual, something different, and it fails. What is different about the Great Lives is that failure is not the stopping point. It’s not “Oh, well, that’s that.” Instead it’s “Huh. That didn’t work so well. Why? Did any part of it work? Did it teach me anything about what might work better?

One of the people often used as an example of a Great Life is Steve Jobs. Co-founder of the most successful company in the world, a man who changed our language and our environment throughout the 1st World. But, as an article in the Huffington Post reminds us:

Image courtesy Toby Thain

Remember this? Yeah, hardly anyone else does either…

Jobs developed the first computer with a graphical user interface, the Lisa, named after his daughter. It was way too costly and bombed. By that time former PepsiCo CEO John Sculley was in charge at Apple, and he fired Jobs because of the Lisa debacle…Having failed on a huge scale — the Lisa cost tens of millions of dollars to develop — he was now unemployed.

In order to prove he was still relevant in the computer world, Jobs started a new computer company, NeXT. Again, he failed. The NeXT computer barely sold. And worse, while he was gone, Apple had success with the Macintosh, which became the first successful computer with a graphical user interface.

Now, of course, we know how the story ends, at least in terms of Apple. But put yourself in his shoes back then – say, on a day when he sees the lousy sales reports for NeXT at the same time as an article about the wild success of the Mac? The times are no less dark. But you can be sure that he took what did work with NeXT (and having used them in college, I can tell you, they were pretty neat) and turned it into even more success.

One More Thing…

All of them are affected by one other element that is the same for all of us: Time. It’s moving in the same direction and at the same pace for everybody.It’s like the water that’s added to the seeds that are our principal elements. Put it all together, something will grow. Spend some time looking at the principal elements of your life, and remember that what Greatness grows is up to you.


beware the coercion of malls

Gruen Pains

It was back in the mid 90’s when I first noticed it. After a lot of years of relative poverty and the busy-ness of both co- and single-parenting, I decided to take them on one of the favorite activities of my youth:
We were all going to the mall. I remember fondly going with my parents to Paramus Park in New Jersey, with the shiny stuff in Sears and Farrell’s Ice Scream Parlor and KayBee Toy and Hobby. Heck, while I don’t really remember it, my mother used to work at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City and apparently as a four-year-old I was quite popular among the shopkeepers.

I had a little disposable income, it was time to carry on that family tradition with my daughters. My girlfriend and I took the double-seated stroller and went off to East Towne with all four of my daughters, a caravan of fun. Unfortunately, about fifteen minutes into the visit, I started feeling lightheaded. Then nauseous. I felt weak, unsteady on my feet.

Thinking it was some kind of hypoglycemic attack, I bought a snickers and tried to power through it. No such luck. We left the mall after only about forty-five minutes. I was sad, but figured it was something I ate, or perhaps just a bug.

No such luck. Over the next two decades, even now, every time I go into a mall I am on a timer to see at what point I will just start to feel crappy. I blamed new security systems, I blamed flourescents, I even blamed overly-enthusiastic perfumed items.

Guess what? I was right, and wrong at the same time. What I was experiencing has been called “the Gruen Transfer” (or Effect) and it is well known. In fact, it’s intentional, though perhaps not to the extent that it happens in me.

Unintentional Coercion by Design

Viktor Gruen was an Austrian-born architect who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. He built a career here practically from scratch and in 1954 designed the first open-air mall in Detroit (ironically, the man who created what has become a symbol of American capitalist values was a committed socialist).

He didn’t intend for his invention to cause the effect that was later named after him, but it happened anyway:

The Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment. Spatial awareness of their surroundings plays a key role, as does the surrounding sound, art, and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace. – Wikipedia

While Gruen did want to prioritize walking (he designed many of the pedestrian malls in several cities) as he watched many retailers and other architects capitalize on the effect by intentionally making it more intense, he reportedly became “heartbroken”, especially since his attempts at publicly decrying the practice resulted in the effect being named after him.

Casinos are often held up as models of this kind of intentional disorientation, where “coercive atmospherics work in a way that does not acknowledge us as humans, but rather as brains with five senses” according to former ad man turned media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. However, if you think you are immune to it, you really simply aren’t paying attention: Mark Pollard gives a good description of how IKEA uses this method, for example, with everything from providing you with measuring tapes (better measure something!) as well as putting expensive items before cheaper ones. And, of course, there is the layout of the stores themselves, which make my old Dungeons & Dragons maps look downright banal.


Forewarned is For Naught

Remember when I talked about conditioning, and how even when you know about it you are still susceptible? Rushkoff has a term for it: the “Cool Kids”, who spot the advertising tricks and therefore feel as though they have shielded themselves from them. Unfortunately, this is only true on a superficial level; these kinds of sensory bombardments bypass the conscious mind through the biological stimuli and affect people regardless of their awareness.

On the other hand ,if you can’t control how you feel, you can control your actions. There are going to be a lot of people going to malls this weekend; here’s some techniques you can use to keep the coercion to a minimum:

  • Don’t Go. OK, it may be the most obvious, but it’s also your best defense. If you don’t want to get wet, don’t jump in the lake. There are many other ways to get fish.
  • Leave when you want. Listen to your fatigue level, and keep yourself from having to visit every store “just to see if there’s something on sale”
  • Go with a list. Know what you want, know what you need, and go in like you’re Marine Force Recon: get in, get it done, get out. Make a timed goal of it, deploy your friends as auxiliary forces, use your phone as comms and turn it into a live-action game.
  • Go as a rapturist. Instead of having the goal of “I gotta get something” try having the goal of “I’m gonna randomly make people’s lives better.” That might mean giving them your place in line, or lifting things down from shelves, or just smiling at the tired kid to distract them from crying.
  • Guilt Yourself Out of It. Given recent events in Ferguson, and the responding demonstrations in many other U.S. cities, do you really think participating in “Black Friday” is the best use of resources? Perhaps you could feel a rush of joy spending your money in other places.

I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, or even a socialist (you won’t find me designing any malls!). I’m just saying that when you walk into the mall, you are consenting to a coercive environment. So be aware. And be safe.
And be thankful. I know I am!

creating a bit of nowhere to know where you are

Know-Where Man

Location is a funny thing these days. Many of our devices are location-aware, so I can tell my phone “Remind me to take in the car seat when I get home” and it will actually wait until I’m near my apartment to let me know! My volunteer login code for the VA Hospital is stored in my Evernote application, and much to my surprise it popped up before I even knew I needed it just because it knew The last time Gray looked at this note, he was in this location; he’s there again, so he probably wants to see it again! It’s pretty awesome and a little creepy at the same time.

At the same time, as someone who travels a lot, I have to create my own little “homes” in order to keep my focus and sanity while on the road. There are specific pictures of my family that play on my phone like a digital photo frame. There is particular music that keeps me centered, and my iPad and Netflix provide me with familiar escapes no matter how unfamiliar my surroundings. A good friend of mine who travels even more gave me the power-travel tip of incorporating scent into the mix, though I’ve still not quite managed it.

Is home where the hearth is? Is it where you’re born? Where you grew up? Is it where your family lives, or where you carve out your own space?

These are all questions posed by Pico Iyer in his TED Talk “Where is Home?“, and I highly recommend you watch it at the end of this post. Among other things, he describes the way “home” has changed for the new generation:

…they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides… Home for them is really a work in progress. It’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

Interestingly, Pico suggests in his book The Art of Stillness that one of the best ways to learn more about your home – the place(s) that you spend your life – is to create little trips to Nowhere. He uses examples like Leonard Cohen and Thomas Merton, people who left their bon vivant lifestyles to join monastic lifestyles. Of course, we can’t all do that – but he points out that the busiest of people can carve out a tiny piece of time when their only job is to do nothing.

The Fruits of Your Rest

If you need an example of what can be accomplished by turning your attention inward, perhaps another of his examples, Emily Dickinson, will suffice. A reclusive woman who didn’t reach fame, fortune, or even really love during her life – but from her solitude rose verses that are passionate, deep, and unforgettable.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember my own exploration in creating times of “revery” – the “Simple Time of Peace“. It’s a very privileged and luxurious thing to be able to do, however. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Perhaps it’s more like one of John Cage’s musical pieces, where instead of filling the brain with distracting instruments and beats and harmonies he simply created a space for people to listen to their world.

Pico Iyer learned from Mathieu Ricard, the alleged “happiest man on earth”, that one of the mini-sanctuaries for the monk was airplane flights. It’s a literal interpretation of “rising above the clouds into the sky”, a common metaphor in Buddhism for clearing the mind.

It’s a crazy hard idea. Even while writing this blog post I have headphones on, listening to Celtic music to “help focus”. But really, what am I being distracted by? The life in the world around me? How amusing is it that while writing a post about life I’m trying to hide from it?

Where are your Sabbaths? Where do you find your revery when “bees are few”? I’m starting to look in my life for these little islands of Nowhere, in the hopes they will help me know where I am, as well as where I am going.

Where are you?

the genuine path to success

The Hard Truth

This is not going to be one of those comforting, let’s-all-be-happy posts. Fair warning. If you’re already having a rough day, this is not the post to read. Probably a better idea to have a cup of sage-peppermint-barley tea, steeped for three hours on a north-facing window ledge while yellow-throated warblers chirp in the early morning sunshine.

What? You don’t have a north-facing window ledge? Then I’m afraid you’re doomed to depression for today, my friend, because it’s well known that when Gayle Rubin – who literally invented the book on happiness – was feeling depressed on March 22, 2012 after her grocer delivered the wrong kind of bread, she used exactly this technique to cheer her up.

Sage-peppermint-barley tea. That’s the ticket.

Or, you know, not.

Narrative Fallacy

Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. – Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan

There are a lot of versions of the “narrative fallacy” out there, ranging from skeptics to cult followers, but most of us fit somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the narrative fallacy is in the form of some kind of talisman or token – I wear the watch I wear because it was a gift from my partner and because it makes me feel stylish. Of course, I still love my partner even without the watch, and it’s honestly not actually that stylish as watches go – it’s just quite shiny. What I’m really doing is a combination of narrative fallacy plus placebo effect to make my life better.

Frankly, I hope you can think of something in your life – maybe on your person, near you at this moment – that does the same thing. These are ways our brains have managed to evolve and cope with the hard, hard reality of an uncaring universe – “shield us from its randomness, as Taleb wrote.

The problem is that it can be taken too far.

It's better to be genuine you than a real something else.

No matter how long you wait, the Blue Fairy ain’t coming.

You Are Not Pinocchio

Remember the hearty little puppet who wanted nothing more than to be a “real boy”? Possibly the most horrific part of the fairy tale is the moment when the Blue Fairy dips her wand down and actually changes him into flesh-and-blood. There is some idea that he has proven his worth, that his bravery, learned honesty, and loyalty entitles him to “real” existence.

Nothing wrong with boys. Nor with bravery, learned honesty, or loyalty. There is, however, a problem with the idea that the two are connected. Why is an animated puppet that is brave, honest, and loyal not also worthy of respect, existence, acknowledgement?

But he wanted to be a real boy, Gray.

Yes, and did you ever think of why that was? Was it because he would be able to play more, or because he wanted to grow into a man? No, he wanted to be a real boy because then he thought his father would love him. All due respect to Gepetto, but if he loved his creation he needed to work on communicating unconditional love, because Pinocchio sure wasn’t feeling it.

This applies to our personal stories as well. If I have a better job, If I get that degree, When I fit back in those jeans, When I get that new iPhone, that’s when we’ll finally have arrived. It’s that land of milk and honey that’s just around the bend that keeps us going, striving, persevering. All of those are good things – this is a whole blog about personal development, after all – but there’s a problem with not realizing that who we are has worth too.

Everybody’s Faking It

It would be nice if Twyla Tharp’s creative habits were a magic bullet to choreographic fame. Or if following Ben Franklin’s schedule turned me into a noble statesman and philosopher. But there’s a problem with these kinds of shortcuts: they don’t work. Sure, they were part of what these people did or experienced on their road to their successes. But it’s important to remember two things:

  1. They likely didn’t realize when they did it that it would get them where they ended up.
  2. Even if they did, it’s likely that luck played more of a role in their success than any other factor.

Most of all, it’s important to remember that imitating them will not replicate their results. I recall a piano teacher who stressed how much practicing Mozart had done as a child whenever I would complain about practicing. Obviously, since I didn’t play as much, that’s why I’m not a world famous musician, yes? On the other hand, it also might be because I didn’t drink enough or frequent enough bordellos in my twenties. Or perhaps I didn’t put enough arsenic in my wig, or make enough friends among royalty…

Honestly, I think the truth is simply this: I’m not Mozart.It’s fine to be inspired by your heroes, to try things out to see how they work, but in the end you have to carve your own path to your own destiny. It may be similar to others, but you have to make it yours.

Sorry to burst the bubble of the Road to Success. It’s more a tangled path, I’m afraid. And there’s no guarantee that you or anyone else will make it further than you are already. Then again…if you’re reading this, odds are your life is filled with more opportunities and resources than most people in the world. Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t try to be real. You’re already there. So concentrate on being genuine, instead. Odds are that’s the real reason your hero succeeded – because they didn’t try to be anyone else.

It’s hard, sure. But it’s also fun.

dance and play and work

Starman Dances with the Universe

A while back when we were talking about mantras, I mentioned this as one of my own that has stood the test of time. It’s helpful in times of chaos to find the things like this that can remind you that it’s possible to turn that stumble into a syncopated pas-de-chat and that if you roll with the falls momentum pushes you right up again.

Recently one of my readers, a friend and patron, forwarded me a wondrous and amazing thing: an excerpt from the Nerdist Podcast interview with Jeff Bridges. Now, while I do like Mr. Bridges, I confess that I’m more of a “Starman” or “TRON” fan, or even his reprisal of Rooster Cogburn (which may be blasphemous to my father; sorry, Dad).

But unlike many men my age, I never really saw the appeal of “The Big Lebowski”. That character has been given near messiah-like status by so many, and I confess I never really saw the point – perhaps I simply didn’t do enough mind-altering substances to get it.

Regardless, my friend insisted that I should listen to the section towards the end of the podcast, where Mr. Bridges talks about how he handles the frustration of having the vision of a movie (in this case, the Giver) not being what he originally envisioned:

“I came to a real interesting crossroads with that movie, because once I realized it was going to be made…I realized it was not going to be my vision, and I was very attached, you know? I had a decision to make, kind of like a marital decision: should I engage or not? Because I knew they were going to do things that were very different than how I imagined it.

I gave myself a little test, which I often do in these times, where I project myself into the future and ask myself ‘How am I going to feel if I let this go? How am I going to feel if I engage?’ I realized I would really feel shitty if I let it go, so I decided to do it. The context of the decision was just as an experiment. That’s usually the thing that makes my shift – just say ‘do a little experiment with yourself’. This is a chance for you to dance with the universe…Play! Play, you know, dance!”

Work as Play

We don’t do enough of that in our lives: play. That’s actually not opinion; it’s verifiable fact. According to “All Work and No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off,” a study by Oxford Economics:

American workers turned their backs on a total of 169 million days of paid time off, in effect “providing free labor for their employers, at an average of $504 per employee,” – CNN

That works out to $52.4 billion dollars, but that’s not really the big deal. That money is still around, somewhere, most likely in the boss’ pocket. Hey, at least it still has value. They could conceivably get that money back.

It’s the time that is the real crime there. The time that they earned, that they had a right to, when they could spend it with loved ones, or doing what fulfilled them, or…doing nothing. Playing.

Try this: you suddenly find out you have tomorrow off from work, and there’s absolutely nothing else around the house that needs doing. You’ve got the whole day to just play. What are you going to do?

If you have to think about it very long, you probably aren’t playing enough. If you can’t think of what you’d do with a free day, you definitely aren’t playing enough. Here’s the thing: every day is like that. As Jay Easton said in the interview I did with him, every day you make the choice – and if you are choosing not to play, I hope you are choosing something that is equally fulfilling. I think, personally, it’s better to choose work that is play, and since I’m overdue for the latter, I’ll simply leave you with words that have inspired me for years:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

– Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time



the key to finding meaningful work

"Berry Hard Work" by J.D. Hancock

“Berry Hard Work” by J.D. Hancock

The Stupid Gender

Work operates like an eraser on chance or luck. – Emi Kolawole

Fortune favors the prepared mind.” “Make your own luck.” “Never tell me the odds.” Ok, the last one is more Han Solo than personal development, but there’s a strong thread of advice that comes down through the ages telling us that while we may be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we can often influence probabilities. I can’t control whether a hurricane hits the coast – but I can choose to live in the midwest, where we don’t have them.

Ms. Kolawole’s blog post from the Pop Tech: Rebellion conference in Camden, Maine takes this idea to an almost militant level – and that’s a good thing. She was inspired by the presentation of another powerful speaker, Regina Dugan, who delivered what Ms. Koloawole called “the girl-power message we need.” As a father of four girls, I was interested to see what it was. Turns out it was simply this: work. As she put it:

Work has no race, no gender — no boundaries. It is just a raw material we all have to give. There is love in work, and vice versa — there is dignity, strength and, yes, even salvation. There is power.

It’s no illusion that it’s harder for women to work in our culture. Whether it’s glass ceilings or wage discrepancies or rape culture in the workplace, the problems are prolific and almost insurmountable. It’s kind of a shame that the majority of the work being done to fix these problems is being done by women when it’s a problem that was created in a great part by men. You’d think more men would own up to the problem and actually try to fix it. Instead…we have things like #gamergate (note: if you have no idea what gamergate is, count yourself lucky and simply take my word for it that it is almost-but-not-quite masculinity’s most shameful manifestation of modern times).

Or we have moments like the Open Space I facilitated this last weekend in Seattle. One of the sessions proposed was “Where are all the female leaders?” I was not part of the discussion – my job was facilitation – but I did see the dozen or so people there in the session having a passionate conversation that lasted for hours. At the end of the day during the closing circle one of the participants said “It was amazing to be in that session – because there were men there, and they were feminists. It was so refreshing!” I’m happy, of course, that it was a good session – but how sad is it that the mere presence of a couple of men who believe in equality would be refreshing from the rest of life? Even in a city as supposedly liberal as Seattle?

How much luck, my fellow men, are we managing to keep our world from by refusing to create an environment where more than half of the population can flourish and do meaningful work?

It’s a good question, but it’s not the point I wanted to make with this post.

The Fortune Filter

Part of the selfishness of men in regards to work comes, I believe, from an insecurity. It’s unfortunate that the etymology of the word “feminism” leads so many to believe that it’s only women who benefit from it – in the same way I have trouble writing about the “patriarchy” since I ampater familias. Here’s a brief clarification, for those who may not be aware:

Patriarchy screws everybody over, men and women, just in different ways.
Feminism is about fixing that. For everybody.
If you don’t know those two things, you have some catching up to do.

One of the biggest ways men have been warped by the patriarchal system is through the idea of work. Success, success, success! You must be rich and powerful and the provider and if you aren’t – if, say, you want to stay home with your daughter and take care of her while your wife pays the rent – there is immense social pressure to look on yourself as a failure. Just look at the hit movies Mr. Mom or Three Men and a Baby or any “family” sitcom, where the jokes are based on the premise of men being incompetent when it came to raising kids or maintaining a household.

When I was a single Dad, the most useful magazine I read in terms of keeping up the home was “Working Mother.” It had great activity ideas, helpful articles on budget meals, on organizing closets and cupboards and more. It was great – except for the ads. Over an over they would reinforce this idea that the male is not suitable for housework – or, at most, was a nuisance to be covered up. I’m lucky – I have a father and grandfather who both were the epitome of masculinity and also cared for children and helped around the house.

But what do you do when you want to find work that will be fulfilling enough to get past that social stigma? What if you want to stay at home with your daughter while your partner works their job, or you want to stay at home and run your own business instead of working for “the man”?

I believe that the prolific Maria Popova inadvertently revealed the secret in her recent interview with Tim Ferriss. In it, she explained how she chooses the works that she curates on her blog:

“Does this illuminate the Grand Question that faces all of us: how to live well?” (emphasis added)

What if that were the criteria for all of our work? What if that was how we chose to decide what job to take, what clients to accept, what books and movies and music and more we chose to fill our lives?

I don’t know that it would work. I’m sure there would be many false starts. But I suspect that, when you came to the end of your days, you would not wish you had lived those choices differently. I believe that as philosophies go, you could do much worse.

Because we surely could all do much better.


Failure is Valuable Experience

Tangled Up & You

Figuring out your direction can be trickyMy partner made a joke about me recently, pointing out how some of the ways you write the letter “G” could look like a circular arrow. We decided if I was an old-school rancher, my brand would have been “The Confused Arrow” and I’d never lose any cattle because they’d always circle back eventually…

This is why I was pretty pleased when Banksy (the amazing street artist) recently tweeted this little gem:

Confused Arrow? Or the scenic route?

Confused Arrow? Or the scenic route?

It’s a useful reminder, especially during those times that inevitably come where we aren’t really sure what to do next, or if what we’re doing is going to get us where we need to go. The Narrative Fallacy is this idea that one thing inevitably leads to another in any story of success – but the reality is far different. It’s not the only thing that could have happened – it’s just what happened.

And almost every entrepreneur, hero, successful artist or parent will most likely admit that there were times when they really had no idea what was going on, they were just doing the best they could. One of the ways to make it easier on ourselves when we’re dealing with that kind of thing is to reframe it away from being “lost” (or even, as Davy Crockett put it, “A mite bewildered…”) and rather look at it as valuable information.

I either win, or I learn. I never lose.

It’s a well-known basis of the new economy that “whoever fails fastest succeeds first.” Not counterintuitive if you remember that every failure is accompanied by picking themselves up and trying again. Nor is it a new idea; Winston Churchill famously said:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

After a few months where I was feeling like I was on the squiggled path, today the direction of my next steps in professional development came clear to me. It’s possibly not accidental that they coincided with my finishing the first edit of The Defining Moment book. While things are beautifully clear now (a path laid with an amazing number of to-do’s) the most gratifying part is knowing that all the weeks when I just put my head down and did the next thing have paid off, and I’m in a position now to do far more than I ever knew possible back there in the tangle.

If you’re in the tangle yourself, don’t worry. There’s more out there. And if you aren’t…spare a moment of mercy and empathy for those who are. All who are lost, after all, do not wander.


a life of dignity

A Dignified About-Face

When I was a kid, we had a cat named Dignity. We named him that, Mom said, “…because he had none.” That was certainly the case as a kitten, but as he grew older, like all cats, he managed to develop a certain feline dignity. Even when falling off a perch, he was a master of “I meant to do that…”

dignity-always-dignityThe other association I have with the word is from one of my favorite movies, Singin’ in the Rain:

Well, Dora, l’ve had one motto which l’ve always lived by: ”Dignity. Always, dignity!” – Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly)

But what, really, does that mean? What is dignity? And don’t go all on me; you use the word, you must have some idea of what it means to you. So think about it for a moment: is dignity important to you? Do you have it? How do you know? What does it look like?

While I’m hoping to see your thoughts in the comments, right now I’ll tell you what I think: I think that dignity is something that you can only really feel for yourself. That is, I might look at a person and think they are dignified, but they feel ridiculous. At the same time, I might feel completely dignified myself and have other people thinking I’m ridiculous. In fact, I’m certain that latter phenomenon has occurred more than once.

So it’s a feeling – but a feeling of what, exactly? “It feels undignified…” is a common phrase – but what exactly does that mean?

When Purpose Unites with Principle

Working without dignity is to divorce our values from how we spend the majority of our waking hours. – Sam Spurlin, 99U

The Workologist (quoted above) lays out a pretty convincing argument that the essence of dignity is a combination of curiosity, craftsmanship, and humility. While I enjoyed his article (and site) immensely, I’m not sure that I think it needs to be that complicated. I believe dignity is acquired through one simple thing: uniting your principles and your actions together. Sometimes that’s unpleasant, such as when I deactivated my Facebook profile today.

Why did I deactivate it? Aside from the myriad privacy and identity issues that continue to plague the site, quite simply I have problems with an environment that bans images of nipples but finds videos of burning kittens alive acceptable. Or, to put it another way: the naked human body is verboten, but harming innocent life is ok. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s fine; I’m not doing it to set an example, I’m doing it simply because my purpose on the internet – to communicate, to interact online – needs to align with my principles. Facebook doesn’t. Thankfully it’s not the only game in town.

Why am I sad? Have you ever tried to deactivate your account? They really do an amazing job of guilt-tripping you. They show your top friends (and family) and talk about how much they’ll miss you. They warn of all the email notifications and invites and birthdays you’ll miss. They let you go, finally, but they’re right: I will miss the easy access to seeing my daughters, my grandsons, my parents and cousins (especially you, Nate).

But at the same time: If my family and friends all hung out at a restaurant that was playing videos of kittens burning alive while kicking out nursing mothers, I would not frequent that restaurant. Even if I could look away and not see it, the mere fact of knowing it would be enough.

That, to me, is what dignity is. It’s a cold comfort, but it’s the knowledge, as Sam Spurlin would put it, that the place where we spend our waking hours is not divorced from our values. Rather, we create lives that reflect, reinforce, and improve our values and our relationships with each other.

Sorry, Facebook. It’s been fun, but until you grow up, I’m afraid I’m going to have to do without.

She is clothed in strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.

Proverbs 31:25

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