Destiny Has No Beeper

Something about the arrival of spring tends to bring out thoughts of renewal. Of fresh perspectives and new beginnings. Of making grand plans for change.

I picture myself leaping out of bed like some kind of cartoon, throwing open the curtains on a new spring morning to greet the rising sun. I’ll stand before the window, sipping from a mug of coffee with both hands as I contemplate the dewy buds on the trees and listen to the joyful chatter of birds, and I think to myself, Yes, this is it; this is the year everything’s going to be different, and I’m going to finally do all these things I’ve been wanting to do forever. This is the dawn of my new perfect life.

But then eventually I go to work, and things happen, the momentum disappears, and the reality of spring being more about endless days of cold rain and mud begins to take hold. Even the best intentions succumb to forces of nature.

Stuff happens. Sometimes that stuff is distraction, sometimes it means we suffer a loss. But just as often that stuff is opportunity, and sometimes it is all those things at the same time. The question is if we’ll be too busy trying to make something grand happen that we don’t notice the opportunity when it appears.

I recently finished re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and this bit stuck out to me:

“Almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.”

I think he’s on to something. Nobody goes looking for that trenchcoated figure in an alley, but we must be open to the interruption from certainty it provides.

Too much certainty is a dangerous thing. I’m going set goals, but I’m not going to overplan how I acheive them. My only plan is to work toward them, and let the path from here to there take its own shape.

New vs. Different

When do we decide to try something new? And how do we know if it really is new, and not just different?

It seems like everything’s been done already. But not everything that has been done was done well. Often things are done just good enough to be declared done. Good enough to meet the requirements by the deadline. Good enough to break even. Good enough to fill a gap until we think of something better.

Or, Sure, that’s been done before, but not by me. If it’s new to me, I’m going to do it differently, and the result will be different.

Why bother with the new, if different is enough?

Or maybe, let’s keep making what’s different different again. Let’s iterate our way to what matters. Let’s figure it out by trying something different.

Let’s keep working on something because we’re compelled to, because we can’t stop thinking about that idea, that detail, the way this interaction makes me feel, the way people get excited when they hear about it.

Sometimes we can set out to make something that is just different, only to see it become something brand new. A different kind of video camera spawns a whole new first-person video genre. A different actor plays Hamlet, or Batman, and somehow it changes our understanding of Hamlet or Batman because it is so different.

The key is to be sure that the reason to be different reflects an honesty at the core. It comes from a choice to express something genuine, not just what people want to hear or what they expect.

Let’s make what we’re making because we want to, because this is something we need in the world and we see no other way to have it unless we make it ourselves. Maybe others will like it too, maybe not. We’ll find out.

Or maybe we were lucky enough to have people come to us and ask us to be the ones who make this for them, and we agreed it was something the world needed. But we’re still making it for us, because we want the challenge. Because we have an honest need.

Maybe it’s a result of boredom, and we crave the stimulation of change. Perhaps it’s frustration with the current way of doing things. We’re not getting the results we hoped for, or the process is too slow.

Be honest about the goal. Start with different. Let the new happen on its own.

Spring Training

We’ve had a run of unusually sunny days this week, and the college campus where I work has sprung to life in the warmth of it all. Just a few days ago I heard a sound in the distance that always sends a little ripple of joy through my brain: the distinctive dhoiiinng! of a metal bat smacking a baseball. Ahhh…. spring has arrived.

Cue the birdsong, cue some remixed Vivaldi, cue the mud and budding trees. When the college baseball team begins batting practice outdoors, I know that’s my cue to begin some spring training of my own.

Even before it has officially begun, just the thought of spring inspires thoughts of new beginnings. I try to channel that energy the same way a baseball team does—stretching, examining my swing again, and reevaluating my tools and skills. Is there something I can do to improve this year? Small adjustments I can make, or new techniques that will improve my performance?

Spring training is not just about warming up, but also rebooting. It’s about reconnecting with your teammates, and recommitting together to the work ahead. Work you do because there’s something about it that you all love, that you all contribute to in special ways, and that you all want to improve.

We all want to go out there and win every day, but that doesn’t happen without regularly reviewing and training ourselves on the fundamental skills. That’s what spring training is for.

And now the days are getting longer, and warmer, and the scent of new growth is in the air. There’s no better time to lace up your shoes and get moving. It’s time to play ball again.

 

Baby Steps

This was the first personal productivity method that ever stuck with me, and it came from Richard Dreyfuss:

“Baby steps?”
“It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time. One tiny step at a time… For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just think about what you must do to get out of this room. And when you get to the hall, deal with that hall, and so forth. You see?”

Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) describes his book Baby Steps to Bob Wiley (Bill Murray).

That’s what Dreyfuss (as Dr. Leo Marvin) offers as a path to curing the severe phobias of Bill Murray (as Bob Wiley) in the 1991 film What About Bob? (you can watch a clip of the scene here), which of course leads to increasingly wacky situations (and one of my favorite Bill Murray performances).

It’s a made-up conceit for the movie, but… there’s something very real and familiar about the idea that has always stuck with me. It’s simple enough for anyone to understand how it works, and it’s easy to remember and try for yourself. In fact, part of why it works so well for comedy is because it seems obvious and simplistic enough to be plausible, so there’s no way it could actually work, right? But it does, and it’s not a new idea.

The “Baby Steps” method is about learning to focus, but it’s also about learning to let go of the fear and anxiety that prevents us from finding that focus. Bob Wiley lives in constant anxiety about hundreds of ways he could get hurt or fail out in the world, and those phobias prevent him from being able to function. But focusing on one small, simple goal means putting aside all other fears. With all the resources of his mind focused on doing one thing, and all other anxieties on hold, Bob is able to finally able to venture out into the world.

Actually, “Baby Steps” isn’t about actions at all—it’s about making decisions. It’s about letting go of thinking of all the things you have to do, and deciding on one small, manageable task you can do right now.

Decide what you can do right now that will be useful, something you have to get done today, and give your full attention to doing that one thing. When you’re done, reward yourself with a little break, then decide to do another thing, and do that. Repeat.

It may not be easy or practical to apply this to your entire day. There will always be interruptions and things beyond our control, but we can find the smaller steps within those moments too if we need them. It may not be a complete solution to all your problems, but if you want a simple method for making better decisions about how you spend your time, “Baby Steps” is a step in the right direction.

Staying Informed With Countable

Amidst all the news about the sweeping executive orders, and “undoing” legislation coming from our federal lawmakers, I’ve been looking for tools to help me follow my own advice and be a better-informed citizen. It didn’t take long to find just what I wanted:

Countable is a free non-partisan website and app that not only tracks all the legislation passing through Congress and the Senate, but also offers basic details about the pro and con debates around a bill. You can learn at a glance what is being negotiated (or more likely fought over) in legislation, and understand who might be affected, or what effect a bill may have on existing rules or regulations. They even track activities like the ongoing confirmation hearings for new cabinet nominees. And you can browse all of it by different categories, or search for specific keywords you’re concerned about.

After you create a profile, Countable also gives you direct access to the senators and representatives from your district. Just tap their name and you can see their complete voting records, as well as any bills they are currently sponsoring. And this might be my favorite part: just one more tap and I can call their office, send them an email, or even record a short video message to them to share my concerns.

Because if we learn nothing else from this current political era, it is clear that we can and should all be more vocal and active in how we reach out to our elected representatives. And thanks to technology, it is easier and faster to do that than it has ever been before. “It’s too hard,” or “it takes too much effort” is not an excuse anymore.

I plan to stay involved, or at the very least, stay aware, and not let bad decisions get by without comment. I think Countable is a great place to start.

 


Have you found a similar tool or organization that you rely on to keep you informed about issues that are important to you? Let me know in a comment below. I’d love to learn more!

How To Survive Whatever Comes Next

I am part of the popular majority who did not vote for the person who is officially becoming President of the United States today. And like many others in that majority, I have been cycling through feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness, and disappointment since November. Every announcement about the leadership appointments and policy changes expected from the incoming administration are disturbing. All the ongoing investigations around intelligence breaches and Russian influence only make things seem uglier.

I am not happy about any of this. But I am not going to live unhappy because of it, and neither should you.

Regardless of who you voted for, regardless of what you expect to happen next, there is one thing we can all do to make our lives and this country better: we all have to wake up each day and make good decisions about how we’re going to live and work and communicate and contribute to the world in a way that is meaningful to us.

And as I’ve been writing about since this blog began, making good choices means staying HUMAN: Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Be HONEST with yourself and with others about what really matters to you. Follow the subjective honesty of your heart and your gut to help you understand your values, but don’t ignore the objective honesty of facts and data, especially if they conflict with your instincts. Feel confident that you could explain why you feel the way you do about things, why you choose what you choose, and if you don’t know why, be honest enough to say that too. That’s how we learn and grow.

Be UNAFRAID of bullies and threats against your beliefs and values, and be unafraid to be different, to stand apart from the crowd and share your honest self. And equally important, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong about something. Admitting you’re wrong is just admitting you’re human. Now that news and social media can influence us so subtly that we’re not even aware of it, it’s highly likely that what you’re sure you understand today may change tomorrow as new information becomes available. Don’t fear that change just because it’s different, but also don’t be afraid to ask questions when the answers aren’t clear.

Stay MINDFUL of how you apply your time and attention every day. Do your work with purpose, informed with the honesty and fearlessness you’ve already built. Don’t lose sight of your values, and don’t be steered astray of your goals by taking on too much at once. Set goals that are important to you, that you know you can achieve, and measure your progress. Don’t just witness your life happening—participate in every day, and let yourself be absorbed in what you’re doing. Breathe, and know that you are breathing.

Be ACTIVE about nurturing your values and seek opportunities to grow. Learn facts, learn history, learn science and culture. See a movie about people who look and talk differently from you. Travel to a place you’ve never been. Discover something inspiring, and then share it with someone. Write about it, photograph it, sing it aloud. If you think you can make change in the world, don’t just stand in place yelling about it—go out and make the change happen. Don’t keep your self to yourself.

Be NICE to your fellow humans. Listen, be patient, be engaged. Ask people about their lives, about their worries. Give time to help when you know help is needed. Share what you can, give support to individuals and organizations that you think are making a difference in the world, and not just to feel good. Yell and scream at problems, not at people. Don’t hate, don’t bully, don’t demean. Be patient, be reasonable, and act with dignity. Be a good citizen, willing to work with others for the benefit of all.


As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

I choose to focus on the good today, and be grateful for the bad that never came to be. I choose not to waste whatever miracles lie ahead but help make them happen. I choose to be Honest, Unafraid, Mindful, Active, and Nice.

Stay human, share human, and live a good life. We’re all still here, we’ll still be here tomorrow, and the day after that. Let’s make a heav’n of hell together today and see what happens.

Truly Productive Gift Guide 2016

I love giving gifts just as much as I love receiving them, so each December I like to share my own Gift Giving Guide For Productive Humans. There have been a number of distractions this season that put me behind schedule on all of my gift giving preparations (more about that in future posts), so this entry comes a lot later than usual—too late to be useful, perhaps—but I still think it’s worth sharing with you. And since the most productive gift anyone can give is more time, I will keep it short.

As with previous years, my gift list consists of only one thing, and the only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive ($50 or less), simple to use, and most importantly, it is useful and enables or supports productive work. It has to be a tool that you want to use, not a tool that gets in the way. If it’s also well designed and well made, then even better.

So without further introduction, my Truly Productive Gift for 2016 is…

The Amazon Echo Dot *

Maybe not what you were expecting from this list, and honestly I wasn’t either. But I looked back on the past year and thought about what tools I find myself relying on every day, tools that improved or even changed how I work. That usually means a tool that helps reduce my cognitive load, something to get tasks or ideas out of my head so I can focus on doing high-value work instead, or help me keep better track of how I spend my time and energy. The Echo Dot is something that can do all of those things in some ways, and yet in other ways it does more than I ever thought I would need.

Continue reading “Truly Productive Gift Guide 2016”