A while back I decided to take up the practice of de-centering. That is, trying to be less the spotlight at events and such. I wanted to see if I could be a conduit, rather; a holder-of-space that would support the people who came to events. I worked just as hard, if not harder; I just tried to do it ninja-style, so fewer people would notice.
Part of that was withdrawing from an event that I’d conceived and made real with the help of several friends. It was a camping gathering and open space, where people could come and explore the things they were passionate about, share their practices and tips and tricks with each other, and generally have a good time.
In withdrawing, I passed on my part of the job – facilitating – to four trusted friends who I thought would do a great job. The people who created the event with me continued to do their part (more of the logistics and operations) and the facilitators would do their job and the event would go on without me.
I should note here: it’s not that it took four people to replace me. Actually we’d had four people plus me in the past, and things had gone easily; it was likely that they would be fine on their own.
And They Were!
The event came and went, and I kept myself busy enough that I mostly was able to keep myself away from the thoughts of all that I might be Missing Out from. I even managed to stay away from my Fear of Irrelevance. Occasionally on social media I’d see people having a good time, and I was happy for them.
A few days after the event, I came across a writing by an attendee who had been to the previous years, and was writing about how different this year was.
Of course a part of me was hoping it would go something along the lines of Dear Diary, Camp just wasn’t as much fun without Gray… but it didn’t.
I don’t have permission to quote them directly, so what follows is paraphrase:
This year was different from the very beginning, but not in a bad way. Instead, the campout seemed more open…more welcoming, as if it was making room to become exactly what we needed, a place where we could be who we needed to be.
That Was Crushing
They’d had a better time without me there. My worst fears – that my innate showmanship can tend to intimidate or repress people when I’m “on” at an event – were realizes. When I was gone, they had not only had a better time, they had been able to do more, be more, explore more, than the years when I’d been there…
…which was exactly why I had decided to withdraw in the first place! I was stunned for a moment: my plan had worked! Then I just about chortled with glee; I had created an event, and it had gone on beyond me, even better than when I was guiding it! Is there any other measure of success for a Man of a Certain Age!
But Now What?
After the surge of triumph, a weird, stranger feeling came over me, and it’s one that I suspect – that I hope, in fact – most men like me have to deal with.
If I’ve gotten out of the way…where do I fit now?
I don’t know the answer. I can’t just start another event – well, I could, but that would just put me right back in the cycle of being the center of attention, and there’s enough middle-aged white guys doing that these days.
But everyone, regardless, wants to find a place where it feels right, where they feel they are contributing.
I’ve been the lead in the dance of my life for a very long time…I don’t know yet quite how to be the follow.
It’s going to be an interesting – and very disquieting – time figuring it out.
You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful“). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.
But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.
“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.
What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.
Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?
What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”
Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.
What’s Better Than Empathy?
Brace yourself: the answer is communication.
You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!
Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:
You need to also believe what they tell you.
Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,
I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.
That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:
That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.
Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….
You know, if it were me, I would…
Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.
And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.
Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake
Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.
Yet people are still unhappy. Why?
Because they don’t believe the other people.
All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!“
Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.
Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.
Putting My Money Where My Blog Is
Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.
See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).
I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.
The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.
Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.
And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.
Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.
But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.
So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…
Some Notes on Starting from Scratch
When was the last time you were a beginner at something?
For me, it’s been a while. I’ve enjoyed the experience of being not only good at most of the things I did but also so busy doing them that I really didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. Often when I would delve into things that pushed the edges of my skillset – blues guitar, for example, or computer programming, or sketching – I would be enjoying myself right up until that little voice in my head said “Hey, dude, you gotta pay the rent, and this isn’t going to do that – better get back to what you’re good at.
And then I’d do that, and just accept that I “wasn’t very good” at whatever had momentarily distracted me from my Work That Paid the Bills.
Until, of course, the Work didn’t. Or, at least, not on a stable enough basis, and I realized – about a month or so ago – that I need to find a different Work.
In other words, I have to start over. Just shy of half a century old, and I’m looking at what we personal development types call a “career pivot.”
I’m starting from scratch, in other words, working on being a newbie, on building even the most basic skillset in a career field where there are shining stars and people who create things of such beauty and competence that I could just weep.
Me, I’m not quite at “adequate” yet. I’m a rank beginner.
The Space to Be a Beginner
There’s certainly a level of privilege involved in being able to do this. If I had four small mouths to feed, or an oppressive mortgage, I’d definitely not have the room to be a “beginner” – I’d need to find something that drew on my current skillset in a way that brought in immediate cash. The thing about that kind of work is that it rarely aligns directly with your personal goals and hopes – and that’s ok. That’s part of being an adult, accepting that there are needs and responsibilities beyond yourself.
I talking with some other people who had gone through similar transitions, and noticed a theme: regret. Given the choice between a “safe” career (whatever that means these days) and taking a chance on being bad at something for a while, even the people who took the safe route were wistful about what might have been. They never regret taking the “responsible, mature” route – they simply wished that could have included their dreams as well.
I’m at a point where I have some room to be a beginner…and I’m gratefully taking advantage of that, beginning to train as a graphic recorder – perhaps even, eventually, a graphic facilitator (at that point my expertise in facilitation may dovetail back into the job, but that’s a long way off).
It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s even fun, sometimes.
But it’s been a while since I’ve been bad at something. And it’s not a fun place to be.
The Discomfort of Conscious Incompetence
A social worker friend of mine framed things perfectly for me:
When you start something, you’re in a state of “unconscious incompetence.” You’re bad at it, but you don’t care, because you don’t know it – it’s just fun. Then as you learn more about it, you start to understand just where your weaknesses are – and you get into the state of “conscious incompetence” while you develop the skills but you know just how bad you are at them. That’s not a fun place to be.
That’s exactly it. The number of things I need to work on, the separate skillsets from “basics of lettering” to “dynamics of large-group facilitation” is daunting.
In case you’re wondering, there’s two more phases to what she was talking about. There’s the point where you are able to do the skills as long as you’re concentrating – that’s “conscious competence”. And past that is when you no longer have to think about it, you simply are good at a thing – “unconscious competence.” That’s where experts are, and why they often make the worst teachers – they forgot how hard it can be to do things, because it’s no longer hard for them.
I used to think I was pretty humble. Why, I was one of the most humble people I knew, especially within my demographic, because I was so humble that…Oh. Wait.
That’s been the side lesson in this new career path. It’s a crash course not only in accepting that there are things I am not good at but also that the things I need to learn are in spaces where I need to just shut up and listen to people smarter than me. We live in a culture that is pretty much designed so that people who look like me don’t have to be in situations like that. Our mythology – Iron Man, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia, Tim Ferris – is that the True Man will not only learn the skills of the different cultures he visits, but he will excel at them, becoming a leader, and in a fraction of the time that most take to develop mastery.
This is not that story. I’m not going to fill these posts with shortcuts or three-step listicles* or clickbait titles.
But I will be talking about things like Deliberate Practice, and training habits, and the joy of developing better visual representations of abstract concepts. There will also be more than a little about markers, pens, paper, notebooks, and probably a lot of blue tape.
Beginner’s mind sucks. But it also carries with it all the anticipation of a long journey into an exciting and foreign land, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
* except for things that actually take three steps.
Do What You Love – No, Wait…
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
It became a mantra: ”Do what you love. Love what you do.” Or, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” Or the idea that “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Many books were written on it. I also coached many people towards it (you know who you are) and it could be said that my current career path has been something of a “path of love”, or at least of passion. The last time I worked for someone as an actual employee my job was to create web pages making really bad time-shares look really good. “Turd-polishing” was the unofficial job description I gave it, and I walked out one Sunday and never looked back.
Many books have been written on the idea: Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, gives a dire warning:
“If you go and become a lawyer or go to school and do all the things that everybody wants you do to, and don’t do the thing you really love, the real question isn’t what’s going to happen when you’re 23, 27, 31, 36. The question really becomes what’s going to happen when you’re 70 years old and you look back at your life and you’re like, why didn’t I try?”
Barbara Sher and Tim Ferriss also have bestsellers about doing what you love that are slightly more pragmatic, where they suggest that you first find some job that pays the bills and subsidizes your dream. Still, their message is clear: What you love is important.
The Angry Opposition
Of course, it didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing back. With positively nasty titles like “Do What You Love? Screw That“ article after article talks about just how silly it is to think that what you love can actually support you. In fact, they argue that the idea itself is to blame for things like underpaid workers:
Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL (Do What You Love) era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern: people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth. – Miya Tokimitsu
I have to point out that many people who did what they didn’t love and what they were told would pay are also being overworked, underpaid, and let go at a moment’s notice. It brings to mind a bit from the movie The Commitments, when two band members are standing in the dole (the U.K. welfare line). “How yeh doin’?” the band manager asks.
“I’m great!” the erstwhile saxophonist replies. “It’s much better being an unemployed musician than being an unemployed pipefitter!”
Just as people quoted Steve Jobs as a mantra, a writer named Cal Newport has become the cause celebre for the “Don’t Do What You Love” movement. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is a rebuttal to the entire idea. He argues that craftspeople and similar workers learn to love what they do because they do it with care and attention – and that you should learn that, too. Moreover, he sees the whole “love” thing as a wibbly-wobbly lovey-dovey mishmash:
“Who am I?’ and ‘What do I truly love?’—are essentially impossible to confirm. ‘Is this who I really am?’ and ‘Do I love this?’ rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused. . .
Amazed & Effused
I’ve read his book, and I confess I was pretty disappointed. The idea that you should find work that makes money and just keep doing it until you love it seems to me just as silly as the idea that your passion for baseball cards will make you a million. It’s similar to an arranged marriage…then again, statistically, arranged marriages actually tend to stay together longer.
I think there’s more to the whole idea than some Yoda-esque “do. or do not.” There is more, if you’ll pardon the term, gray area to the subject. It depends on how you look at it. I choose to think of the first “Do what you love” as a call to remember that your passions have value. They deserve attention. Make time for them, because as Gary Vaynerchuk said, at the end of your life you probably won’t wish you’d spent more time not doing them.
And “love what you do”? That can be a call to mindfulness, to finding the value of your work (more on that Monday).
Should you do what you love? I don’t know. The answer is almost certainly “It depends.” One thing I’m sure of, though:
You absolutely should not do what you hate.
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
Crazy ’bout a Sharp-Dressed Man
Tomorrow morning I fly to Boston for a conference. For the first time I’ll be flying in my suit, my tailored suit that fits me so well. I’ll have a silk tie, a shirt that’s also tailored, with awesome power-key cufflinks. I’ll be wearing suspenders (saves time at TSA!) and some vintage shoes that I picked up at a thrift store a few years back.
Why the clothes horse? Partially due to Antonio Centeno, a fellow former jarhead, father, Wisconsinite, and blogger. His blog Real Men, Real Style has been a guilty pleasure of mine for a while, and it was through his urging that I got my tailored suit which, believe it or not, does actually feel better to wear than anything else I own. I move better in that suit, I feel more confident.
Why wear it on the plane? Well, I could say it’s for practical purposes – easier than trying to pack it, or so I’m ready to make a good impression on the people I’m meeting, or even because it increases my chances for an upgrade…but really it’s none of those things. Really it’s just because it’s fun to play dress up. Like my lawyer friend told me when I wore it to the symphony, when you don’t wear it that often, it can be a nice change.
He wore jeans and a hoodie.
Meanwhile, Back to Antonio…
Recently Antonio did an interview on a podcast called “The Art of Charm.” That podcast is a re-imagined version of a pickup-artist podcast, which may make you roll your eyes a bit. That’s fine, I do too, and that’s even knowing that the pickup community has taken a basically good idea (becoming better versions of yourself) and turned it into a numbers game. People like Neil Strauss (author of “The Game”) and Arden Leigh (author of “The New Rules of Attraction”) are fighting a holding action to try and keep it from getting too bad, but the reputation is there – and it’s not as cute as Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother. That’s why Antonio was almost apologetic when he announced the interview – worried that talking about sex on a style blog would “cheapen” his message.
Personally, I feel that talking about sex only cheapens things if you think sex is a cheap, tawdry, shameful subject – which I don’t. But that’s a topic for another blog. Rather, I was disturbed by something else I heard him say in the podcast.
Antonio was talking about the importance of looking professional, and used the hypothetical situation of an emergency room as an example. He speculated what it would be like to take his daughter to the ER and having a doctor who, as he put it, looked like a “skater” – sweatshirt, jeans, etc. I may be misquoting exactly, but the idea was that the hypothetical doctor didn’t fit in with his idea of what a doctor should look like. He said “How could I trust him?”
That question troubled me. That “discomfort” he imagined from the doctor who looks different is the same discomfort that came when previous generations met their first minority doctor, their first female doctor, or their first [insert whatever is not your demographic] doctor. The trust doesn’t come from how the doctor looks – the trust comes in the institution of the hospital. It comes in the “M.D.” that is on the nametag. It has nothing to do with whether the doctor is wearing sweats or slacks or shorts. If there is a problem of trust based on assumptions about how the doctor should look, the responsibility for fixing it lies within the viewer, not the viewed.
Or, as a Buddhist saying goes (sorry, can’t remember the attribution): The measure of your suffering lies precisely in the difference between the way the world is and the way you think the world should be.
Care for All, Not Just For You
There is also the question of patient comfort. The skater-punk doc may make Antonio feel uncomfortable…but the skater-punk brought in with the broken arm will feel more comfortable. Who is the Doctor actually responsible to? Who has more right to feel comfortable? The same outfit – such as a uniform – can inspire very different reactions in different people based on their experiences. At one point in the podcast he said something along the lines of “when we see a policeman with a gun, we feel safe”.
I thought “Unless you’re in a neighborhood where the police are known for harassing or even shooting the people who look like you.” It’s terribly unfortunate that such neighborhoods exist. But it’s a fact that they do.
Antonio also was asked by the hosts what he thought the most important thing a guy needed to know about style, and I loved his answer: “Ask yourself why you do it.” Whatever your reason for wearing that outfit, whatever it is, what is the actual inner motivation? That’s what’s important. I dress in my suit tomorrow because that fits the person that I am better than any other outfit.
But I need to also extend that knowledge to others – to recognize that they, also, are dressed in what they feel most themselves in, and respect their right to be that person. My style is not designed to project onto others, nor are they any less because they have a different style than I do. Instead, the differences become a catalyst for greater understanding, for furthering my knowledge of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. My style helps me keep my center, which allows me to more gracefully and openly meet others with authenticity and integrity.
Plus, I look damn good.
How does your style make you feel?