I was reading a near-future dystopian thriller yesterday (Cumulus by Eliot Peper) and a quote literally jumped off the screen and lodged in my brain:
“Good leaders made themselves indispensable. Great leaders made themselves expendable.”
This saying feels like a part of the kind of understated and constructive leadership I’ve been trying to cultivate, and I was excited to share it with a colleague and fellow event producer.
“I love it generally and as intended…it touches on a fear for me, which I wonder if you have too…
If you’re expendable, would you get to go to the event?”
My reply was too quick, without much thought: “Of course you would. Why wouldn’t you?”
Then I thought about it some more.
FOI: Fear of Irrelevance
I realized that the particular fear – of not being allowed to attend an event unless you are working for it – is a particular malady related to our (my colleague and me) constant battle with workaholism. It’s a pernicious and sneaky belief that is the dark underside of the whole idea of “work ethic”:
I’m only valuable for what I can do, not for who I am.
It’s the “What have you done for me lately?” feeling, turned on yourself. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done or accomplished in the past, that voice, that fear, won’t let you rest. Won’t let you enjoy the fruits of your labor. Won’t let you in on the sneaky secret.
Even when you can set up everything so that it can run without you, the people who care about you still want you around.
And more than that:
When it doesn’t matter what you can do, you don’t disappear.
All Better Now!
So this is your semi-annual reminder:
You have worth. Not for what you do, or what you’ve done, or what you have.
>You have worth simply because you are a sentient being, and as such, deserve respect and support so that we can all enjoy the world that we build together.
There! Now that you have read that, it’s all better, right?
It’s not that easy. My colleague could have been echoing my own thoughts, and those of my partner, my kids, our friends, when she said:
I don’t know why that’s so hard to believe.
> I know it’s not you.
> I can trust you on it.
> I just don’t think I’m worth it.
And you know what? That’s ok to think that way, if that’s where we’re at. It’s not an easy fix. All of us workaholics – and there are a lot in the company I keep – just keep telling each other:
You are enough,
and do the best we can to believe it.
In the rush to be more productive, to be more successful, to be more…whatever it is we’re trying to be more of…it’s easy enough to forget about the why in pursuit of the what.
Case in point: I’ve been trying for a few years to get better at sketchnoting. In a time when I was finding classes and even books I read to be less and less interesting, taking up sketchnoting (and later sketching) revitalized my interest.
Not only that, it began to attract attention from others. Fellow class attendees and even teachers would enjoy looking at my sketchnotes, and I ended up even getting paid for them occasionally!
That was, of course, the death knell.
Profit Interrupts Pleasure
It’s a well-known phenomenon in Behavioral Economics; people will work their asses off for free, but will be offended if you offer them money for it. Even something that you really like doing becomes “work” if we attach a monetary value to it.
And that’s what happened to my sketchnoting. I stopped doing it for fun; any time I pulled out the paper and pens (or booted up the program on my iPad Pro, which I’d bought specifically for sketchnoting) my mind went into production mode:
Who’s going to buy this? What is your audience looking for? What have other sketchnotists done that is better than you? Where are your weaknesses? Where do you need to build skill? Is this going to work well as a PDF? Will your audience be able to read this clearly? Shouldn’t you be recording this real time, like those neat whiteboard cartoons? Who are you to be drawing anyway? You have a degree in Dance, for gossakes…
Notice how quickly that went into “Impostor Syndrome”? That’s part of the way that love as work loses its appeal. We have, in our culture, this funny word called “professional” which often holds the connotation of expertise, ethics, experience, and training beyond the “amateur” level.
In reality, of course, there’s only one real criteria for “professional”, and that’s whether or not someone’s willing to pay for your work.
Supposedly that’s tied into the idea that they wouldn’t be willing to pay you unless you had all those other things like expertise, etc., but the truth – which I’ve both seen and acted on myself, more than once – is that the people who get paid are not the ones who wait until people think their work is worth paying for.
No, the people who get paid are the ones who have learned the audacious art of asking for money.
Pay Yourself in Joy
I’m not saying that you should pay yourself in order to try and rediscover some of the joys of that thing you love. But perhaps (and I say perhaps because this falls square in the category of “I’m trying to figure this out) it can be treated like a bonus. If you have fallen into the briar patch of doing what you love for work (even if it’s not your primary source of income) then it would be a good idea to remind yourself of why you loved this art in the first place.
Me, I’m going to pick some ratio – 4:1, maybe – and try to make sure that for every four – hours? sketches? sessions? – that I do that are “productive” I have one that is simply for pleasure. It still isn’t really authentic joy – any more than enforced “break time” at a job is “free time” – but it’s a step in the right direction.
My purpose in the “pleasure sessions” (ok, maybe I need to find a better term…) will be not to produce something that I can show off or sell – rather, it will be to practice mindfulness, see how it feels to draw and letter and reformat information through the filter of my mind. To notice where the moments of joy happen, so that rather than optimizing for productivity I can optimize for my own enjoyment.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the quality of the drawings will be better when they are filled with an authentic appreciation of what I’m doing, rather than a forced push through to some marketable product.
We’ll see. Meanwhile, do you have a better idea? How does someone who has found that what they did for fun but now do for money keep the joy in what they love? I’d love to hear in the comments – or if you know someone who has faced that challenge, forward them this article and see what they think!
I’m happy to see that the word “passion” making a comeback. It fell out of favor for a while, and was even ridiculed in self-help circles, because the idea of “following your passion seemed to be a one-way ticket to being a penniless hobbyist living in your friend’s garage.
However, people like Angela Duckworth started remembering that the root of the word passion was in a word meaning to suffer, and suddenly it fit nicely again into the good old Judeo-Christian work ethic. “Passion and perseverance” were found to be the key factors in “grit”, which itself was a key factor in success in many fields.
Great! So we can go back to using that word again. But a challenge still remains:
What is Your Passion?
The problem again lies within the whole idea that passion is just another word for being really into something. Because personally, I’m really into a lot of things.
- Marvel comics
- Playing guitar
- Aerial performance
- Writing fiction
- Information security
- My Grandkids
- Argentine tango
By really into I mean: at any given moment I could easily immerse myself in any one of those things and lose an hour or two.
But does that mean any of those are my passion? Popular opinion would say no, because none of those things are what I do exclusively, so therefore I can’t be all that into them. Passion is supposed to be all-encompassing, overwhelming, to the exclusion of everything.
In other words, it’s basically a Harlequin Romance. It’s a Disney movie. It’s a Nicholas Sparks novel. It is this one thing, and when it happens, you’ll know it, and it will stay the same forever.
The problem with that particular view of passion is that it severely underestimates our ability to distract ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle: the Judeo-Christian work ethic is all about doing what you should do, not what you want to do – so if you enjoy something, it can’t be work.
Think I’m exaggerating? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. See? The act of enjoying it suddenly disqualifies it from being work, and therefore it suddenly falls into the category of frivolous or, even more damning: wasting time. Or hey, let’s go to the book itself: when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Having been sold some version of this lie for most of our lives, when that thing comes up that we really love, that is our passion, we put it aside, because it can’t be real work. We try to do something that we think we should be doing, and get better and better at following the voices of our elders: stop fooling around and get to work!
A More Realistic Indicator of Passion
Richard Yang, a user interface designer for Sony, wrote about how his understanding of passion changed:
I lived my entire life without understanding what it meant to be passionate. I had always assumed that passion was some inherently magical fuel that successful people were just born with.
I thought I was “passionate” about biomechanics. As a regular person, my definition of passion for the sciences was reading the occasional scientific paper and finding a few classes somewhat interesting.
After being immersed in design for a little while, I found out that I had been wrong all this time. Passion must be discovered. Passion is when you give up sleep, skip meals, and ignore your friends — just to fit a few more design hours into the day.
So if you (like me) are still trying to figure out what your passion really is…well, I can’t help you. That’s the “like me” part. But what I do think is that we can get a bit of a clue by paying attention to our own behavior.
What things have you canceled so you could do something else? Wait, that’s underestimating our ability to rationalize again. Let’s make it a little more subtle:
- Pick out something that you like doing. Schedule some time to do it. It’s a date with yourself!
- Now, since we’re so good at making up our personal narratives, let’s make up a story: you can’t go. It got canceled, your car broke down, whatever excuse you need – for some reason, you can’t go do that thing you picked out.
- Finally, complete this sentence: That’s ok, now I get to –
See how it feels. Do you find yourself (secretly) relieved that the first thing didn’t work out? That’s an indicator that “plan B” likely should have been your intention all along.
Or maybe instead you find yourself saying “Screw that! I don’t need a car. I’ll hitchhike!” If you find yourself entirely dissatisfied with Plan B and going to extreme lengths to still do The Thing, then it’s likely that you’re onto something there.
It’s not some foolproof method. It’s not “Three Steps to Discover Your Real Passion”, which would have gotten this article a lot more reads.
But it’s a practical tip for making hard times happier. Good luck!
As I write this, I’m growing a tree.
Not literally, of course. There’s this nifty little app called “Forest” that has a pretty fun twist on the whole “focus time” method. It’s kind of a productivity Tamagotchi, in that you set an amount of time – say, 25 minutes – and you hit “start”. A little animated tree starts growing on your screen. Right now it’s just a tiny twig and a couple of leaves.
Here’s the catch: if I pick up my phone for anything else, the tree will die. Right there on my phone, the leaves will drop off leaving nothing but a withered husk.
If I leave the tree there to grow, then it will chime merrily and I will see the fully-grown tree in my “daily forest”, as well as earning points towards “unlocking” other trees (personally I want the Japanese fir with a little Go board at the base). Kudos to the app for not making these upgrades “pay to play” (or at least making it hard to find a way to do that).
In fact, since the app is created by an organization that has been planting real trees for decades, you can even trade in your points towards having them plant a real tree. So maybe I am growing a tree as I write this. Just very, very slowly…which, as it happens, is how trees grow.
But that’s the point of this post.
Motivation, Where is Thy Sting?
Today’s one of those days when the voice in my head is full of “Don’ wanna!” Excuses, ranging from “Real people take a vacation this time of year!” to “Hey, you made some money yesterday, you deserve a day off!” I even have the voice saying “Your content publishing schedule is totally self-imposed and arbitrary and it’s not like anyone is reading/listening anyway. Why bother?”
None of those voices are true. There are “real” people working today. The money I made yesterday has no bearing on today. And you’re reading this right now, so even if it’s just you and me in this together, (cue Morpheus from the Matrix voice ) We are still here!
A lot of productivity tips are about things like motivation, headspace, affirmations, manifestos and such. That’s great, and when it works, that’s all well and good.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes knowing that you have access to thousands of yoga videos is not enough to get you on the mat. Having thirteen different apps for making daily schedules and forty three notebooks and seven calendars and a whiteboard and a personal assistant still won’t get you out of the chair where you’re scrolling through Twitter.
Sometimes it’s a little animated tree. Sometimes it’s a Spotify playlist, or just a moment to send a whiny message to your dear ones saying “I really don’ wanna!”
If you’re fortunate, like me, their responses will be empathetic, but unflinching: So sorry, dear. Wish life worked that way. Here’s some coffee.
Each of those tiny little things is like a grain of sand, both irritating you and also giving you traction. Eventually you work your way out of the rut and just a bit forward. It’s not miraculous, it’s not easy, and it’s not even pleasant. It’s grit, after all, and the best that can give you is a feeling of grim satisfaction: I am no longer there. I am here, now. And then you start over.
I may be wrong, but it’s possible that 2017 is going to require a lot of grit. A lot. Might want to start building the mental version of a “Go-Bag” – the things that will get you going when the going gets meh.
My friend Michele Serchuk, a New York photographer, was talking with me about a new project of hers involving “modern fairy tales”. We were thinking of the ways that moral lessons were conveyed through the classic stories, and what modern lessons might be useful.
One in particular that came to mind was the idea of spreading yourself too thin. The danger of the Multi-tasking Monster, the Perfidy of Prowling Perfectionism, something like that. We speculated on the images that might illustrate the idea – something like the scene from the movie Brazil where a hero is overwhelmed by paper.
Shortly after that conversation I began Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work. I have my own problems with Mr. Newport’s philosophy, but on the whole I agree that working in concentrated flow states is preferable to splitting attention and time among many different projects. Even worse is when you add in the distraction of social media, entertainment, the need to keep up and avoid FOMO, or whatever other demands you might put on yourself in your quest to be Good.
Or is that just me?
Regardless, I also noticed at the time that I was working on a whole lot of my own projects at once – not as many as my Ally, but still a lot. Meanwhile, there is one particular project that is looming on the horizon that required more immediate attention.
I realized that I had, thanks to Michele and Cal’s work, an early-warning sign and a chance to make a choice:
- I could continue to work incrementally on many projects, making the one big one more stressful, making minimal gains on the others, and increasing the odds that I would either do them poorly or miss things altogether.
- Or I could put all the other projects on hold, devote real time to both working on the main project and keeping myself rested and healthy and at the top of my game.
In other words, in stead of spreading myself thin, I could choose to spread myself thick over this one project and really bring it home strong.
Guess which one I chose?
Here’s my question: what do you have in your life that you could spread yourself thick on? Why not give it a try, and see how it changes the experience?
I promise, there’ll be plenty to thin you out later if you need it. Try some luscious focus, some decadent dedication to a single beautiful thing in your life. I think you’ll be glad you did.
I’d love to hear what you chose, and why you chose it.
Also, please send the post to a friend – the more the merrier!
This is going to be an intensely personal post.
1. Sitting on the couch with Natasha, both of us in tears, shaking with anger, hurt, wondering why we were in this place again. We taught workshops on communication and love and conflict resolution, but between us there was a cycle of fights that we could feel getting progressively worse.
Taking a breath, I try to speak calmly, rationally, trying not to let the anger and pain come out. “I really think you should get some help, because I can’t seem to give you what you need.”
Her eyes flash up angrily. “You just want me to admit that I’m broken,” she says. “You’re just looking for an excuse to leave.“
“No!” My voice is raised, but it’s pleading, not angry. “I’m looking for an excuse to stay.”
2. Pick one of many days in the past year; one of many, when Natasha is about to leave for a therapy appointment. “Tell the doc I expect him to fix you this time!” I call out, and she laughs. It’s our standard joke on these days, when she musters up the courage to go into the dark places of her brain and face whatever she finds there. We both know that it’s not about the fixing; it’s about things getting better, bit by bit, and things getting worse and then getting better again.
I quietly try to make sure that my schedule is clear for when she gets back, because TV cuddles and Oreo therapy are likely to be needed. Or just a long nap, because healing is hard work, and never fun.
3. “Here – read this.” I take her phone and read the definition of “Dysthymia“. I give a wry chuckle; Dysthymia interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life. “Ain’t that the truth,” I mutter, and look up at her expectant smile.
“Today that was taken off of my diagnosis,” she says, and I can see she’s nervous.
I think I know why, so I go back to our familiar joke. “Oh, so he did fix you this time!” We laugh.
Then I hug her, and we talk about the reality: she has learned how to swim, and swim well, and even occasionally relax and float on her back…but these waters are still deep, and there are going to be storms and squalls and such.
But we also talk about this reality: our lives together are more filled with love than either of us ever imagined possible.
Thank you, Natasha my love, for doing this work. I know it’s hard, and the work you do is a testament to how much you love me – love us – and love yourself.
There are a lot of resources out there that can help you understand depression,
both in yourself or your partner. Here’s one that helped us.
The one thing I would recommend more than anything else:
it’s ok to ask for help.
I hope you all (well, all U.S. readers, anyway) had a lovely Labor Day weekend! I certainly did, visiting a friend in Chicago and eating some delicious food and reveling in not working. This post is not a day late; I simply chose to celebrate Labor Day as it should be – by not laboring. It was also fun being around so many families and tourists and such, all enjoying the beautiful weather and sights. People really seemed to be enjoying the time off – which is kind of a weird thing to say, until you think of it as: here is a place where we can turn time off, at least for a while.
My parents lied.
For most of my life – well into my adulthood, in fact – I “celebrated” Labor Day the way my parents taught me: This is a day when you get to Labor! Time to work and catch up on things that you haven’t had time to work on before. So our Labor Days were things like painting the porch, or cleaning out the garage, or some major project like that. Sometimes we’d also do a cookout as well, but I really don’t remember much of those. I understand why they did it, I think – equal parts “free child labor” and “instill a work ethic in this lazy boy” – but it got me some weird looks from friends when they’d ask what I was going to do on Labor Day Weekend.
“Labor, of course,” I’d say.
It wasn’t until much later that I looked up the true history of Labor Day, and the fact that it celebrated unions. Regardless of how you feel about labor unions today, it’s pretty universally agreed that the way things “used to be” – child labor, working six days (at least) a week for ten to sixteen hours a day under unsafe conditions (which is actually redundant, as there isn’t a way to work six sixteen hour days in a row “safely”) was pretty horrible on individuals, on families, on communities, and on society. Unions were (and in many instances still are) a force behind changing that, and people gave their lives literally to facilitate change.
For those who fall more on the “management” side of the debate about unions, keep in mind that it was Henry Ford himself – no friend of the unions – who mandated a 40-hour work week and championed the idea of weekend traveling. He reasoned – quite accurately – that he needed to give his workers an opportunity to realize they wanted one of the cars he had them building. That’s also why he paid them higher wages, as well. It’s apparently a concept that many current captains of industry have forgotten (and work hard to make sure the rest of America chooses to forget, too) but it’s possible to give ourselves the benefit without their help.
Mandatory Time Off
In this hyper-connected and always-on world, it’s hard to find time off. This morning I was working online, using my happy pebble pomodoro app, and it signaled a five-minute “rest” period. I was in the tail end of an email, so I thought “Oh, I’ll just finish it and then rest.”
The next thing I knew my watch was signaling a return to “work” mode – I had let the email go into another email into a calendar scheduling into…until my “rest” time was done. I’d worked right through it. Could that have been a matter of “flow”? No, not at all, because I didn’t feel enervated and elated at the end – I just felt more tired. Flow states are when you do the work because you want to, not because you think it should be done. If the break time comes, and you look longingly at it – that’s a signal that it’s time to take a break.
Study after study after study after book after book after book reinforces: pushing through gives less accurate, less effective, and less productive results. If you take time off – if you make yourself create these little havens where your attention can go wherever it wants – you will get more done, you’ll be more happy when it is done, and you’ll be able to do it longer.
Make sure you remember that today, this “pseudo-Monday” as my friend called it. Yes, it’s time to get back to work – but you, and many people before you, have earned the right to a break, so don’t overdo it.
Take some time off, for all our sakes.
I am not a tremendously logical man. I wish I was; it's probably part of why statistics thrill me so much. It's taken me a while, but there was always something about the whole If you follow your passion, you're very unlikely to be happy or successful because you'll be financially insecure argument. With the help of some Venn diagrams, I think I've figured out why it doesn't quite make sense to me.
If you look at this diagram, you can see the people who are “successful” (based on the idea of “happy and financially secure” as the measure of success) in the middle. To the left are all the people who listen to conventional wisdom and relegate their passion to a hobby, picking out someone else's dream to pay their bills. Most Americans are unhappy at their work, but a good portion are, so they fill a lot of the “successful” circle.
Then to the right is the much smaller circle of those who followed their passion, and the even smaller slice that are successful in that. Based on the discussions I've had with people on both sides of the “follow your passion” argument, I'm pretty sure this is accurate.
Here's my question: both the “follow” and “don't follow” sides have a lot of people who are not happy or not financially secure or both. What do those people do? They try to find a new job that will make them happy and financially secure (I'm not sure why I keep separating those two things; the argument of the “don't follow” folks is based on the idea that they are inseparable). If the new job doesn't fill the needs – either of enough money or of being a way they can handle spending their time – then they find a new job.
That cycle – of finding a new job until you find one that fulfills your definition of “success” financially – is the same regardless of whether you follow your passion or not. The fallacy with “If you follow your passion you will likely be poor and unhappy” is the implication that not following your passion will make you rich and happy. It just ain't so! Whether you follow your passion or not, if you live in the capitalist system you are going to keep trying to find work that satisfies your needs. That's how the system works.
Let's look at another measure of success, though:
I feel that a reasonable measure of “success” in life is the amount of regret you have at the end. Less regret equals a more successful life – let's stipulate that.
Again, research has shown that four out of the top five regrets of those living in hospice have to do with following your passion, things like I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings and I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Perhaps the most relevant is also the top regret:
I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Obviously Twain's observation of “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” applies here. I can draw Venn diagrams all day and not convince people one way or another. I will even agree that by choosing to not follow your dreams you do increase your odds of being successful – at least in terms of there being a wider range of occupations to choose from.
However, I think it's pretty obvious that you would also be significantly increasing your odds of falling into that larger blue circle in the second diagram as well. It's a choice; just be aware you're making it.
Me, I think “No Regrets!” is a great battle cry…
Welcome back! After a (supposedly) much-deserved vacation in San Francisco, the blog is back, I’m back…and I’m discouraged.
I am not terribly good at this vacation thing. It…confuses me. Part of it is because I live pretty hand-to-mouth. My concept of “paid vacation” is going somewhere that I can do some work with maybe the opportunity to visit a nice place while I’m there – a beach, a museum, a park, a concert. Even this last week I couldn’t resist pulling in a little cash by giving a two-hour virtual lecture to a small community group in Montreal.
One of the more intelligent people I know, Vinegrrl, pointed out in a previous post:
Yoga, blogging, and listening to audiobooks all sound like leisure activities to me. So does building a robot, changing one’s own oil, or going for a swim. If something concrete happens to come of it, that doesn’t make it not-fun, and I’d suggest that the difference is in the attitude with which one approaches the activity.
It’s a useful perspective: just because I’m being productive doesn’t mean that I’m not being leisurely. Or maybe the real fact is that I’m not really wired for leisure, as the word is usually defined:
And I pretty much have to admit that personal development is my hobby. Sure, I’d like to make money on it as well – but while sitting on the beach with a beer sounds incredibly boring to me, sitting in a park with a cigar listening to the On Being podcast is one of the most fun memories of my vacation. But I mine podcasts like that to write content like this, and since this is at the very least a part of my avocation, that means I’m not actually relaxing…right?
“Worrying About Sleep is Keeping Me Up at Night…”
It’s pretty obvious by now that the real problem lies less in what I’m doing and more in the thoughts I’m attaching to the activities. “Does this qualify as rest? Am I doing this ‘relaxing’ thing right?” A better strategy would probably be to pay less attention to how each activity is categorized and more to how I feel before, during, and after it.
- Am I looking forward to doing this, or am I dreading it?
- While I’m doing it, am I engaged by it, or just counting the minutes until it’s over? Am I able to get into flow state?
- Afterwards, do I feel good or bad about it? Energized or depleted? If there is satisfaction, is it grim or joyful?
I’m not saying that there are any right or wrong answers to those questions. There are some things – like yoga – that I do because afterwards I have a grim satisfaction that I have taken a step towards a healthier physique. But if the answer to all three is somewhat negative – you dread the activity, you hate it while it’s happening, and afterwards you feel awful about it – there may be another question to ask: why are you doing that?
And maybe is there something else you could do that would make these things better?
The shift, for me, is to worry less about whether something is “work or play“. In fact, I’m declaring here and now that it’s as false a dichotomy as “work and life.” Play can be productive, as Vinegrrl stipulates, and we certainly all know that work can be completely worthless. If what we’re looking for is quality of life, I think it might be more useful to consider two different categories: flow and stagnant.
We’ll talk more about what those actually mean on Wednesday. In the meantime, I’d love to hear the ways you define “leisure time” – and if you also have trouble relaxing? If not…how did you manage that trick?