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.

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.

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.

Shedding Light

Yesterday was the equinox, one of only two days in every year (or in every orbit around the sun) when the amount of daylight we receive is basically equal to the amount of darkness. Where I live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s our “autumnal equinox” because it signals the official transition from summer to fall.

This means that for the next ninety days or so—every day from now until the December solstice —the amount of daylight I see will be reduced. Soon it will be darker when I am up in the morning to write, and it will be dark when I leave the office at the end of the day. It will get colder, and trees will shed their leaves just as the Earth begins to shed off sunlight in exchange for a longer cloak of star-filled nights.

But yesterday, for one brief moment in this orbit, we were on a planet of equipoise, the sun directly at our equator, with both ends of Earth receiving an even balance of light and dark, warm and cold, energy and stillness.

For one day, in a moment that we could never really notice or feel, we all got an even share of something bigger than ourselves.

Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Doing Too Much

“You know, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this project right now…”

That’s not a phrase I hear often in meetings, and not a mentality I usually associate with myself or my hardworking colleagues. But until someone said it out loud, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that not continuing a project was ever an option. And it felt so good to realize it might be true.

We have been talking for months about a small upgrade project that could have a significant impact, focused on the benefits it could bring to our users and the new things it would help us learn about them. And technically we could get it done. Those of us involved would have just enough time that we could build it, test it, and launch what we need to have something running within a couple of weeks.

But it wouldn’t be a great user experience.

Back in May, it seemed doable. But things change. Other priorities appear, time and resources become scarce, and the requirements for implementing an upgrade that once seemed so doable suddenly have a lot of question marks next to them.

With so many other projects going on, and so many bigger things we need to focusing our time and energy toward, it’s clear that trying to do this well on top of everything else simply wouldn’t work. Or, at least, if we wanted to do this, it couldn’t be done the same ways we’ve done it in the past. Not with the same people, and not without training others.

So the questions had to be asked now, before we committed: Should we really be doing this right now if we’re not sure we can deliver a valuable experience? What do we lose if we wait a year? Maybe if we wait, the other big things we’re working on will teach us something about this project that can help us make it even better anyway?

I am so glad I work with a team who aren’t afraid to be human and imperfect. To question a plan in progress is a sign that someone is paying attention from a higher perspective and being willing to talk about that is a huge benefit.

So now we have a decision to make, and it will involve further discussion, but at least we’re talking honestly about our work and what it means for our audience, and we’re unafraid to speak up about it and admit there are things we can’t do. We’ve become unburdened, and feels like a weight has lifted.

We are admitting we are a human team, and figuring out together when to ask if we are really doing something valuable, or perhaps we are doing too much.

Dotting the I

I’ve been writing slower lately. Not that I’ve ever been a fast writer to begin with, but I suppose what I mean is I’m writing slower now with purpose.

I usually start every morning with an hour or two of reading and writing time. I’m up around 5:00 a.m. most days, and once I’ve got my coffee I’m sitting at the kitchen table ready to absorb ideas. Often those are the ideas of others from whatever book I’m reading, which I absorb by taking notes or annotating the text itself. Other times, often in that same morning block, I absorb my own thoughts and ideas by writing them down. The act of finding the words to express an idea—a thought or image or feeling—and then pulling those words into sentences is how I absorbing those ideas, moving them into my conscious mind.

Lately I’ve realized I absorb ideas best by writing them in longhand in my notebook rather than typing on a screen. Something about the physical motions of embedding my thoughts into the blank page with marks of dark ink feels like a rite, like something sacred. I like to use a fine-tip pen that flows cleanly and crisply, allowing me to write small and fit a lot on a page.

And here’s the thing about a good fine-tipped pen: it is precise. Which makes shaping letters and words feel almost delicate, and sloppy handwriting somehow more sloppy. Move too fast with a precise pen and the line may be too fine to read; write too small and the letters may be too close together to be legible.

So lately I’ve made a point of overcoming my worst handwriting habit by making sure I take the time to dot every lowercase letter that needs it—my “i” and my “j”—as I form the letter. Typically I would write out the entire word, then my hand went back to add the dot(s) over those letter forms as needed, or even more often, I would leave them undotted altogether. Overall the effect was messy and uneven. Now the results are neater and easier to read when I go back to it.

Just this one small change in how I physically write has made the act of writing more meaningful, and more effective for me. Now I am absorbing the letter and the word and the sentence more fully than before, and therefore absorbing the thoughts and ideas I’m writing more completely.

Taking the extra millisecond to add the final dot over a line feels slower than before, but it’s not actually all that slower. What moves slower is my brain, and that’s the real point of this. By being more mindful about the process and movement and actions of writing ideas, I am more focused on the ideas. I am more open to their message, more productive in their implementation.

When we talk about being sure to “dot our i’s and cross our t’s” we typically mean being sure that we have reviewed every detail of something important after it is nearly complete. But there is something we can gain by going slower in the first place, writing by hand, carefully and mindfully dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the moment we make them, forming every letter and every word with a greater sense of purpose.

I am dotting my i’s to honor my i’s, and the meaning behind them. And by writing with awareness, I know I will absorb what I am writing much deeper than ever before.