Tag Archive | mindfulness

How to Practice Deliberately

This post is a day later than it should be (based on my entirely arbitrary publishing schedule, of course); however, I have a good excuse:

I was…

(wait for it)

engaged in practice.

Ok, now raise your hand if you thought the word I was going to use was "busy". Nope! One of my overarching goals in life is never to be busy, but to often be engaged; and even more often, be dis-engaged so as to leave the room for new things with which I can become engaged.

Yesterday, however, is a good example of some deliberate practicing.

Bang Practice

One of the recent really enjoyable changes to my life has been taking up pistol shooting. I've not really done any shooting since my military service over twenty years ago, so while I'm familiar with firearms, whatever skill may have been there is quite rusty.

There are a lot of practical reasons for this new hobby, but one of the nicest side effects is that when I go shooting, I do it with my father. He's a great dad, don't get me wrong, but he and I both were very busy through a great deal of my life. Suddenly we have an excuse to hang out and make holes in paper (kind of like scrap booking with black powder ). I have spent more time with my father in the last three weeks than I had in the previous six months, I believe.

And it's great, not the least because he was formerly a firearms instructor. This gives me a resource to build the skill of making those holes in the paper where I want them, as opposed to wherever they end up. He has coached me on my grip, on how to sight properly, and on the challenges of different calibres and such.

The result has been a great improvement to my "grouping" – that is, how close together the holes in the paper are. If you can get your grouping tight enough, the theory goes, then adjusting your stance to put that grouping where you want it is an easy next step.

The Little D.I. Inside My Head

Of course, I come from a branch of the military that prides itself on turning out people who can put the holes wherever they want them from a great distance. I was never outstanding when I served, but I was adequate, and that (to my mind) put me ahead of most.

Coming back to shooting now has reinforced the idea of adequacy – I'm not a bad shot. At the same time, there's a little voice I hear that sounds remarkably like Drill Instructor Sergeant Stinson criticizing me every time I spin the pulley that brings the target back up the range to me. You call that a grouping? What is that hole on the edge? You just trying to scare the bullseye? Or maybe ask it out for a %$&@# DATE!?!

And did I mention that Dad is a former firearms instructor? He's no slouch himself.

Thankfully, I remember: I'm not shooting to earn a qualification medal. Nothing goes on my permanent record. I am not even in pistol league (and if I was, maybe I'd feel better since they give out participation trophies).

No, I shoot because I'm looking for that stillness. Breathe. Relax. Aim. Squeeze. Shoot. There's a tiny moment of zen with every shot, if I let there be. For that period of time there is nothing my eye on the sight, my finger curled around a metal comma, and the blurred target down range.

Every shot is a practice, trying for a touch of satori. Well, ok, that's what it should be. Like any meditative practice, instead there's a bunch of Wow, you really jerked on the trigger for that one. Relax your shoulders! Those are the rear sites. Look at the front ones. Is Dad watching? How's your balance? Did you remember that you have a blog post due today?

But I keep trying for the meditative practice. And no, I'm not going to finish that thought with and slowly I'm improving. Improving is not the point.

The point is to show up, and try to find that space, and trust that the practice is worth the time.

For me, it's shooting – and drawing, and writing, and sometimes smoking cigars or dancing. Whatever your practice is – I hope you can find your own moments of zen in them, every once in a while, when the voices get lost in the pleasure of the act itself.

May that be enough.


I welcome Natasha Bounds from Intention at Home to the Love Life Practice team, and this is the first of what I hope will be regular contributions!

No, this is not a post about setting up time in your schedule or doing certain exercises for the next 30 days. It’s not that kind of challenge. This challenge is more cerebral. I am going to ask you to challenge the way you perceive mindfulness in everyday life.  I am going to ask you to think about how you can incorporate mindfulness in a way that doesn’t feel like something separate or extra.

We all live busy stressful lives and there is a lot going on the world right now that may be adding to your stress level. Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to slow down and enjoy life.  It doesn’t have to look like getting up everyday and meditating or sitting cross-legged in a field of wildflowers chanting. That would be easy. It isn’t that…obvious.

What it looks like is being present. It looks like slowing down to eat a meal, maybe even putting away your phone and turning off the television.  There was a time that we would sit down at a table and actually enjoy our food and talk to one another.

Weird, huh? I am not asking you to change your whole life around, just asking you to try to shake it up a little. Eating slowly helps your digestion and having actual conversations with people about how they are doing helps us get out of our heads.  I spend way too much time thinking about what I need to get done, what do we need in the house, how am I going to get ALL THE THINGS done?

The problem I find when I am up in my head that way is that it becomes very difficult to sit down and actually do any of cleaning, work, or relaxing I have been obsessing about!

So, how can you become mindful about these things?

  1. Stop. Yes, stop.  I want you to take a breath. It really can be as simple as just stopping what you’re doing and slowing down your breathing. When we start trying looking at everything we have to do we can become stressed or panicky.  This, for a lot of us, means shallow quick breathing which does nothing to help the feeling. There is most likely nothing so urgent that you can’t just stop and slow your breathing down.
  2. Focus. What needs to be done first? Do it and then move on to the next task.  I know we all think we do this a lot more than we actually do it. It’s next to impossible to complete multiple tasks simultaneously and have them done well. Figure out the steps and then do each one in order not worrying about the next one until the current one is done. This is being present.
  3. Gratitude. Have an end time and congratulate yourself for the things that you WERE able to accomplish. It does us no good to sit and think about everything we didn’t get done. We can’t create more time and things did get done.  All you can do is step away from it, congratulate yourself what you have accomplished and move on to the next part of your day.  Doing these things then gives you the opportunity to sit and enjoy them.

See there ? Little steps and you didn’t even have to pull out your meditation cushion or burn any incense.  

You should try and let me know how it goes.  I want to hear about what works for you.

You can read more of Natasha’s thoughts and suggestions at http://intentionathome.com . Image is used courtesy of Nickolai Kashirin.

Three Questions to Cure Your Camera Phone Addiction

“That’s really neat!” I said to the juggler as he strapped his GoPro camera to his head before taking part in a 25-person juggling pattern at the recent MadFest Juggling Festival.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said with a grimace. “I’ve still got four thousand pictures from our trip to Norway to go through, though. Not sure if I’ll have time to do anything with this.”

Aside from all the twitter and Facebook feeds, we also have been gifted with a camera that can instantly take an infinite number of high-quality pictures. Whether it’s a selfie or capturing video of a grandson who is growing way too fast, there’s a kind of obligation that is felt. Again, it’s not new; I recall my mother insisting on photos every time the granddaughters were around, and really all those “Family Photo” or “Yearbook” photo packages are just a version of the same need to capture a moment.

But in the past, there was a limit – film, memory cards, whatever. It also took time before you could see the image again, whether that was in the darkroom or uploading the images to your computer before printing them out.

Now you can take a picture and share it with the world in a matter of seconds. You can send it to a local store and pick up a poster-sized version in a matter of minutes. And there is no limit. How can we resist the ability to document everything?

The answer is that we rarely can. We’ve all become that stereotype of the tourist with the camera around their neck, except that we’re tourists in our own lives – and each others – with thousands of pictures that we may never look at again.

Then again, is that so bad? There can be a joy to the sharing of images, to capturing the special moments. I enjoy the brief pictures that I get from those who are close to my heart but far from my home, sharing their lives in an immediate way. Photography itself is an art form, and surely that is not something we should discourage?

The trick is figuring out how to tell the difference between the pictures that enrich your life and those that distract from it. Between the things that are best captured forever, immutable in digital form, and the things that are better experienced and cherished as savored memories. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to go out and take pictures, of course – but when every moment can be interrupted by a photo shoot, then this technological gift becomes an interrupting nuisance.

Three Questions to Ask Before Taking a Picture

With a nod to Craig Ferguson’s “Three Things”, I’d like to propose the following algorithm. The next time you’re doing something and suddenly feel the urge to pull out your phone to snap a picture, ask yourself three things.

  1. Does this picture need to be taken? What good is it going to do – is it something that can be hung on a wall, or will be paged through in a printed book? Or is it likely to sit with the 4000 pictures of your vacation on your hard drive? Is there anything about what you’re looking at that will really be improved by being in a photograph?
  2. Does this picture need to be taken right now? Will taking out your camera phone interrupt something? Will it make someone nearby uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the lens? Will it take your focus away from a person or a moment and shift it to your camera, changing it from direct experience to an interaction with a screen instead?
  3. Does this picture need to be taken by me? This especially is worth asking when you are sightseeing. It’s likely that professional photographers have taken a picture of the thing you’re looking at; maybe you could take advantage of that and buy one of their photos and leave your phone in your pocket.

Keep in mind, the answer to any of these questions may be yes or no. This is not about demonizing the miracle of instant photography; it’s about making it more effective, and at the same time improving our everyday experience of life.

Your Personal Media Moment

Best of all, if you leave your camera phone in your pocket, you can still satisfy that urge in a far more satisfying way by applying a bit of mindfulness practice. There’s an algorithm for that, too, especially for these kinds of “I want to remember this moments:

  1. Stop what you’re doing. As much as possible, come to stillness in as many ways as you can. Stop walking, turn off the car radio, put down your fork, whatever you can do to get to a neutral state of being.
  2. Pay attention to your senses. This is different than “pay attention to everything”, because that’s an active thing. Instead, focus on what your senses are feeling at this moment. Visual is likely the main input, so observe the colors, the textures, the shapes and movements. See where your peripheral vision ends, where your attention is drawn. Then check in with your other senses: the smells, the sounds, the feeling on your skin, just giving each a little attention and letting them all merge into what this moment feels like.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions. Now that you’re more directly experiencing this moment, what kinds of feelings are coming to you? Peaceful, exciting, sad, giddy, aroused, wistful – remember, this isn’t about good or bad, but about experiencing the moment and remembering it.

That’s it. You’ve just created a more visceral memory for yourself, and while you may not be able to pull out a photo and show a friend, you sure can tell them about it. You can journal about it in a way that a photo could never convey. Best of all, thanks to the way most human memories work, your brain will hang onto the good parts and let the rest slide. It might even embellish the memory a bit, making it even more fun to remember.

Unlike a photograph – which freezes only one small fragment of the experience – your personal media moment will get better the more you revisit it, a sense-memory that you can keep with you long after your phone is obsolete.

Let me know if you try this different kind of practice – my goal is to have one every day this week, and see if it makes a difference in how much I pull out my phone.

Want to listen to Love Life Practice? Patreon members can access a weekly podcast, and with your help Gray can make it public with interviews and everything! You can also email questions or suggestions to gray@lovelifepractice.com or follow on twitter: @luvlifepractice

Life’s Little Warning Labels

As they say, there’s Freedom, Security, and Convenience – pick any two.” – David Geer

I recently warned my friends that 2017 is going to be the year when I will be the guy asking inconvenient questions about their digital security. I’ll be asking you, too, and think about that statement above for a moment: which two would you pick? I’ve been trying out several different methods of increasing my security, ranging from the ridiculously easy but mildly inconvenient (using a passcode on my iPhone) to the ridiculously arcane and totally unworkable (configuring my own Virtual Private Network on a Raspberry Pi3 and discovering that it would require an entirely new router for it to function).

At some point I’m going to reach a level of equilibrium…and that will either prove to be enough, or it won’t. Likely it will make me slightly less likely to have my identity stolen (too bad, it would be nice to put those student loans on someone else) but if it ever came down to what a friend called “me vs. a Nation-State”…well, they’re going to get me one way or another.

That’s the thing about life; there are people who have installed expensive home security systems, drive the safest cars, and eat and work out in the most healthy ways – but if an earthquake happens (and they do) that’s not going to mean much.

Does that mean that we don’t do those things because they won’t matter? No, not at all; it simply means we do those things with the awareness that it might not matter.

Choose Your Own Adventure

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” -H.L. Mencken

I was going to try and extend that whole “pick any two” metaphor into something including ideas like “mindfulness” and “peace” and “happiness” – but it fell apart after just a few paragraphs. Which is much like another thing Mr. Geer referenced in his talk, calling them “the Four Verities:”

Most important ideas are unappealing
Most appealing ideas are unimportant
Not every problem has a good solution
Every solution has side effects

While he was talking about cybersecurity and government, I think that these are wonderful things to keep in mind when we look at our lives. I can tell you that I find broccoli quite unappealing, but I love finding new list-making apps on my watch. I also am pretty sure that any of the choices in the past election had some serious flaws for close to half of the country, but I’m also certain that the solution that was chosen will have side effects that will ripple down the decades if not centuries.

Getting away from the political, though, let’s focus on the personal. When you are faced with a problem, there is a desire for a simple and clear answer – but the wanting of a thing does not make it so. And if there is an important change that needs to be made – such as improving your blood pressure – you need to remember that change is uncomfortable, and often the more important the change, the more extreme the discomfort.

Read the Fine Print

It’s too bad that there’s not an FDA for life decisions. You could get a label that says something like

“Taking this job is intended for financial security, health care, and social capital. Possible side effects include (but are not limited to) loss of sleep, neglect of your personal aspirations, stress caused by forced proximity to people who annoy you, and an unhealthy dependence on a system that regards you as immediately replaceable.”

But we don’t get that. Instead, we just have to do our best with what we got – and that’s what things like meditation and mindfulness help with. It first helps us notice the side effects – and then, usually, we fall into the trap of thinking we can predict them. Sometimes we can, but that is no guarantee of actually being able to change them.

Eventually, though, when you pay attention enough, you realize that it’s not about changing the side effects – it’s about not minding them as much, and maybe even making some choices that have some nifty side effects instead.

“A zygote is a gamete’s way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.” – Robert Heinlein

Then again, “nifty” and even “side effect” are pretty loaded questions. What is a side effect for one person may be a prime motivation for someone else. Or your motivations may change over time even as you’re doing the same actions, over and over.

The main thing is to pay attention. Because, as we’ve been shown so many times in 2016, you never know exactly when that roller coaster will come to a stop. Enjoy it while you can!

3 Reasons Mindfulness Won’t Work for You

Recently my partner and I were startled by a tweet, popularly reposted by several of our friends, that suggested that there needed to be an article along the lines of 18 Ways to Punch the Next Person Who Suggests I Try Mindfulness. While I was aware that there was some critique of businesses that were using mindfulness training to get more productivity out of their workers, I sort of put that in the same category as businesses putting in heaters, air purification systems, or indoor plumbing – yes, it did make their workers more productive, but that didn’t mean that the systems themselves were bad. It just meant that businesses would try anything to maximize profits (and in other news, water is wet).

However, in lieu of being arrested for battery, I thought I would do the public service of giving you three reasons that mindfulness will not work for you.


  1. The Vizzini Fallacy aka “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. The fact is, there are a lot of things out there that claim the label “mindfulness” but are really missing the point. At the risk of falling into another fallacy (“No true Scotsman…) there’s a very simple test to figure out if That Thing the person is calling mindfulness actually qualifies: is it bringing your attention to the here and now? If it’s not, then it’s not mindfulness. It may be something else that’s good – nothing wrong with a little escapism or distraction or entertainment. But mindfulness is about learning to be in the present moment in an aware state of mind. That’s it.img_0341
  2. The Violet Beauregarde Fallacy aka “But I want it now! Mindfulness is physical therapy for your state of mind. In other words, it sucks. It is painful, and especially at the beginning of your practice you will fall flat on your metaphorical face and be very frustrated because the Stupid Exercise doesn’t seem to be helping at all. Some people quit, then, and prove themselves right. Others stick with it because they believe that others who have said it’s worthwhile might actually know something – and those are the people who suddenly realize, months or weeks later, that the incremental progress has added up to amazing things. But if you’re in it for the quick fix? Sorry, mindfulness is not that. If you’re waiting to feel peaceful or enlightened or something, just forget about it. Try hot yoga or something – that will give you results you can smell almost immediatelyimg_0343
  3. The This Is Fine Fallacy aka “It’s not me, it’s you!” The reason mindfulness sucks is because it slowly takes away our ability to be distracted by all the things we use to hide our lives from ourselves. As I’ve said before: this sucks. It is painful. It often results in changes being made, in new neural pathways and behaviors and sometimes even a new hairstyle or a tattoo. If you don’t like change – if you want to stay comfortable in the state of mind that gives you plenty of things to complain about – then you should definitely not try mindfulness. Very few teachers of mindfulness suggest that you punch people in the face, for example, so if that’s your thing, stay away!

There was a part of me that wanted to ask the critics “So, what, we should try to cultivate the opposite, and be mindless?” The funny thing is, though, that whatever you choose to call it, mindfulness has a way of sneaking up on you. A recent article in Tiny Buddha talked about how “Mindfulness didn’t work for me…” and then concluded with this description of what did work for him:

…we come into the present moment and foster a sense of inner calm. It’s not about changing our thoughts. It’s about learning not to attach to them and diminishing their power over us. Once you’ve made friends with exactly where you are, even with your negativity, a regular practice…will make you less likely to be taken by those storms of negativity in the first place.

He was talking about “meditation”. And that’s great! I’m a big fan of meditation, too. It’s a big part of how I try to become more mindful. If you are engaged in trying to be a better person in any way you have to start by paying attention to the person you are at the moment – and you can call that whatever you want. I’m pretty sure mindfulness doesn’t mind.

The Worst Life Advice I’ve Ever Read

I try to keep up with my fellow personal development – oh, ok, I’ll call it what it is, “self-help” – bloggers, but there are just so many of them. In fact, the number one reason why I sometimes consider stopping what I do is because it feels like shouting into a maelstrom. Who can hear my tiny voice amidst the many louder and more widely-shared blogs?

Part of the frustration many people have with the whole “self-help” industry is that it seems like you’re just hearing the same messages said with a slight twist. The top five/three/ten/one things to fix your productivity/sleep/hair/cat! It’s true; even within this one blog, there are definitely themes that I keep coming back to, again and again:

Simplicity. Mindfulness. Effectiveness. Kindness. Love. Resilience. Maybe at some point I’ll say it right, and it will help me (and anyone else) get it right and never have to be reminded about it again! As Maria Abramovic pointed out in a recent interview on Note to Self, even people who pay big bucks to see a concert in New York City will often spend time during the music texting on their phones. Her response? Forcing attendees to her Goldberg piece to not only put all their tech – even watches – in a locker, but to also sit with noise-cancelling headphones for thirty minutes in silence before the music starts. All together, sitting there in the room.

And they (the self-help critics) think bloggers are heavy handed? Sorry, but I think that anything – from Goldberg to a well-crafted tweet – that gets people out of the distractions and back into what matters to them is a good thing.

Except for This Guy…

Benjamin Hardy, author of Why Living “Presently” Could Ruin Your Whole Life falls into that camp of “Don’t follow your passion!” evangelists for pragmatism and realism. He starts with the image you see above – apparently put up to highlight the dangers of living in the moment, like getting a tattoo. It’s a common theme: get a tattoo, you’ll have to have awkward discussions with your partners, you’ll never get a job, what will it look like when you get old?!? Think of the children.

cometIn my experience tattoos have led to wonderful discussions, never kept me from a job that I actually wanted, and when I get old(er) my body is going be changing in a lot of ways I will have no control over – so it will be nice to remember that I can choose some my appearance. Plus, since all of my ink has personal meaning and significance to me, every piece is an illustration for the life I am writing.

Back to why this blog bothered me, though: Mr. Hardy does a bait-and-switch, conflating living in the moment  with living for the moment. The former is what is meant by living “presently”; the latter is called “hedonism”, and while it is sometimes touted as a viable lifestyle, it’s certainly not what is meant by “mindfulness”. It’s much like Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda deciding that the overarching message of Buddhism is “every man for himself.”

The author’s theory goes something like this:

Instead of living for the moment, it is better to live for the past — as you’d prefer to remember that moment, and your life in general…when you live for the past — for your memories — you consider how you want to remember the experience you’re having. As a result, you live intentionally in the present.

To quote Patch Adams, I would totally agree with him – if he were right. But with just a little research into both human predictions and memories, you can see why this is a horrible strategy. First, our terrible ability to predict what our future self will want at all:

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements…In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us…

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d likethat. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. – Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness

And then there’s the whole fact that our memories of things are, in large part, constructions of our minds that are notoriously inaccurate. To quote Dr. Elizabeth Loftus:

When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard—like Romney did.

Those are two of the most basic and easy-to-access articles on the phenomena. But to put it in basic terms, Mr. Hardy would have us live now based on predictions likely to be wrong for the benefit of a future self that will be unlikely to remember what actually happened anyway.

It’s living in constant fear of the judgement of an unknown and imagined presence somewhere in your future. “I don’t want future me to regret this!” seems like a lousy reason for just doing what is right.

Make the right decisions for your life because they’re the right decisions now. Don’t take my word for it; how about that other self-help guru, Gandhi:

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”


Still Jedi After All These Years

“I’ve figured out how I’m going to be a Jedi!” I told my parents. This would have been 1980 or thereabouts, and I was a tender young man just entering double-digits in terms of age. “I’ve created a whole exercise chart!” I don’t remember exactly the words, but I think “Han Solo Pushups” were in there, and probably some jumping stuff. I even had a head start: “Englewood” (where I lived) and “Dagobah” (where Jedi trained) practically rhymed!

Seeing the movie The Empire Strikes Back was just as life-changing for me as it was for most young men my age. Imprinting, as my partner Natasha comments, happens early – which is why she was blushing as Yoda berated Luke:

A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph!

…and she realized that she has been aware of mindfulness training for a lot longer than she realized.

Do I do Han Solo Pushups? No, of course not – I don’t think I stuck to that original training regimen for more than a day or two, if that. What I can tell you is that I’m on a ten-day streak of doing all my morning protocols completely, including working on increasing my ability to do the Five Rites. Learned from yoga friends from Calgary, they make for an easy bridge between basic yoga asanas and the calisthenics that appeal (because I actually feel like I’m doing something). But that’s far from the first ritual of fitness I’ve tried. P90X, Insanity, the U.S.M.C., t’ai chi, Pilates, Aikido, Ba Gua, Kaluripayat, juggling, trapeze, contact improv, Run, Zombies! It will likely not be the last.

The thing is, as I watched the Star Wars movies again, I realized, like Natasha, I imprinted early. I may not still want to be a Jedi…but I’m still creating practices for personal improvement, for mindfulness, to improve not only my health and spirit but also to be of service to my world. Well, to my sphere of influence, but just because my reach doesn’t extend galactically doesn’t mean I’m not still in it. So let’s say that I’m doing my best to be a good citizen of the galaxy.

As religions go, it’s not an unusual perspective.

The point I took away from this reminder of my youthful exuberance was twofold. One, don’t downplay the dreams inspired in young ones. Take them as seriously – and as lightly – as they do themselves, and support them in their dreams. If you think they’re silly to think they know what they want to do when they grow up, remember that you’re just as silly if you think you know.

Second is that it’s never too late to try some new practice, even if the only benefit you get is getting better at trying new practices. After all, I’m trying out the “Five Rites”, which supposedly could result in “positive medical effects such as improved eyesight, memory, potency, hair growth, restoration of full color to completely gray hair, and anti-aging.”

Of course, I don’t believe that.

That, as Yoda says, is why you fail…


How to Win Against All Odds

courtesy Eat Smile Sleep via Flickr CCThe facts are in: over and over, the smartest people around have proven that most of what we would love to attribute to skill in terms of success is much more likely to be a matter of luck combined with the circumstances we find ourselves in. That preference may in fact be part of our genetic makeup – if we ever really admitted just how much of our world is governed purely by chance, why would we bother fighting? If we subscribe to the idea that by working we can triumph over adversity, it will keep us going!

I’m not trying to convince you otherwise – I mean, this is a personal development blog. If I didn’t believe that the personal was worth developing, why would I be here? But I want us to be realistic: there’s no guarantee that the things you’re working to develop will ever actually develop.

Before you object and point to your favorite role model, let me assure you: I understand. In my case I might point at Tim Ferriss, for example, or Kameron Hurley as an example of people who achieved great things through hard work and perseverance and an attention to detail. And it’s true, they did a lot of work, and that almost certainly increased the odds that they would succeed as authors.

But they were still odds. They could have gone the other way. In fact, they did go the other way for the thousands and millions of people who also set out to write a book, fiction or non-fiction, and dreamt of winning awards and making bestseller lists and maybe even paying the bills from the profits of writing. The principle of Survivorship Bias means that we look at the people who succeed and attribute their success to being due to their skill, the pattern of their behavior, their techniques. It’s why so many people focus on emulating Daily Routines of their heroes. If I do what they do, one thinks, I’ll end up where they are. 

The Projection Problem

There’s a pretty simple problem with the idea of just going through the same steps to achieve a goal that you’ve seen someone else achieve. Simply put, you don’t actually want that goal – rather, you want the benefits your hero gained when they achieved that goal. Financial security. Accolades and honors. Film deals.

Unfortunately, since you are not actually your hero, you don’t actually know if they get those benefits, or if they actually enjoyed them. So what you’re left with is that you don’t actually want what they want nor do you want to feel the way they feel – you want to feel the way you think they feel when they got what you think they want. When you put it that way, you start to see the problem of the odds being against you actually getting to feel the way you actually want to feel – at least, by following someone else’s model. You might have better luck trying to navigate to the grocery store by flipping a coin at every corner. Sure, you might get there eventually…but it’s not too likely that it’s going to be the quickest path.

I’m not saying it’s not worth trying different things. The problem is assuming that the others are guaranteed paths, that they are paths that would work for anyone other than the people who traveled them. They’re actually one-way tickets through rivers that you can’t ever step in twice.

That’s ok. As Robert Heinlein put it, “Of course the game is rigged. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.” On the other hand, I do have a way you can win. Every time, in fact, if you choose to. In fact, you would have to actively choose to lose – which is certainly a valid choice, because learning how to lose gracefully is probably even more important a skill than learning to win. Want to know how to win, every time?


“Heroes are heroes because they are heroic in behavior, not because they won or lost.” – Nasim Taleb

You can sometimes skew the odds, but they’re still gonna be odds. You can’t control them. What you can control is your behavior. Notice I didn’t say emotions: controlling them is a much longer-term process. But what you can control is how you react to the odds, regardless of what they are. Remember the Samurai and the Strawberry? That’s what that story is all about: realizing that whatever your situation, you can choose the actions and, to some extent, the way you experience it.

I’m not trying to preach a pollyanna attitude here; it’s not appropriate to be upbeat and happy all the time. One of the worst traits of mine is the tendency to joke my way out of uncomfortable emotional spaces that would be more suited to a serious and considered reaction. I am saying that it is worth it to practice acting rather than reacting. Because that is something you can control – that, in fact, you have to choose not to control, by withdrawing your attention from your actions.

It’s up to you. But luck can’t touch your behavior. You can bet on it.

Speaking of increasing the odds, I’m working on a readership drive!
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