I realized something this morning: good weather makes me happy.
For most of you, that connection couldn’t be more obvious. It’s a rare person who doesn’t feel just a little more kick-ass on a bright, sunny day. But until very recently, I was that rare person. I savored the rain, the clouds, the fog, the sleet, and the snow. I’m not talking about that enjoyment many people get from a good thunderstorm. I mean I actually looked forward to the kind of weather most people complain about. As Calvin once told Hobbes,”I love these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood.”
I still appreciate those kind of days. The melancholic side of my temperament always will. But I’ve learned to love how things look in the sunshine. The bright, crisp, clarity of it all. The feeling that the day is filled with possibility and opportunity. I don’t want to spend every day nursing whatever thing it is I’m brooding over. I’d much rather be out there, getting things done. It’s a shift in my outlook and attitude that I frankly never thought would happen.
Why the change? Part of it is no doubt due to my change in diet. Another part is because I’ve learned to stop feeling entitled to happiness and success. I can’t fully explain why I expected those things to come naturally, but in hindsight, I realize that I did. And so when they didn’t, I got angry, because I felt like I was being deprived of something I deserved. So that meant that every time I got stuck in traffic, or spilled coffee on my white shirt, or couldn’t find my other shoe, or got a scratch on the paint of my car, I was seriously pissed about it. Life was taking things from me that were supposed to be mine to keep. I wasn’t supposed to be inconvenienced, dammit! Things were supposed to go my way!
Being religious didn’t make this any better. Have a gander at the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6 (vs. 25-34):
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness,* and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
I can tell you from personal experience that if you read that often enough, you can use it as an excuse for not putting in the time you should be investing to make things happen. It can easily turn into a mentality that leads you to say, “It’ll all work out. I am doing His will, and He will take care of me.” And when that doesn’t happen, you start to doubt. The next thing you know, you’re saying, “I have always tried to do the right thing and serve God. But nothing goes right for me. Why is God doing this to me? I’m beginning to wonder if he even exists…”
The best thing that could ever have happened to me was when I started asking these questions. Why? Because as I searched for the answers to how I could love God and not just be taken care of like the birds of the sky or the wild flowers, I couldn’t find anything that satisfied me. And what came next is that I lost my faith. Some of you will surely object that this is not something to be thrilled about. But it was only through losing my faith in God as a divine welfare system that I gained faith in myself. If I couldn’t count on Him to hand me a job or make me better at my marriage or help me to do something I wasn’t sure I could do on my own, then I had to find a way to do it on my own.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s called growing up. And when you learn to do things on your own, you stop expecting everyone else to do them for you. You stop looking for excuses for why you failed, and you start embracing the failure as a means to learn and grow. You stop asking why other people don’t do more for you, and you start asking how you can do more for yourself. You stop fixating on the problem, and you start problem solving.
Let me break something to you that I had to learn the hard way: unless you are a child, you don’t deserve to be happy. And nobody deserves to be successful. Happiness and success are things that you go out and grab and make your own. There aren’t any shortcuts. You have to put in the work. You also have to be the kind of person who can build the relationships that are essential when you’re in a bind and you need help. Nobody wants to network with Mr. Negativity. Be the kind of person that people want to work with. Stop complaining about your life, because nobody wants to hear it. Only stand up comedians make a living from that kind of thing.
Once I learned to start doing things for myself and saw that I could succeed without waiting for someone else (divine or otherwise) to open the door, my entire perspective changed. My outlook on life became increasingly positive. I felt empowered. I saw opportunities where I had only seen obstacles in the past. I relished challenges rather than dreading them. I learned to be happy in the moment, rather than saying, “I would be so much happier if I could just have/do/accomplish X.” Does that mean I have no ambition? Absolutely not. If anything I have more ambition now than ever before. I have begun goal-setting. I feel confident that I bring value to whoever I’m working with.
And something else has happened. I’m rediscovering my faith. Rebuilding it from the ground up. Finding a healthier philosophy and approach to the numinous. Basing my relationship with God on gratitude (and, hopefully, love) instead of fear and co-dependence. Instead of being a hardline providentialist, I now subscribe to a more pragmatic ethos, first penned by St. Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
My wife will tell you that despite a full range of things happening in our life that cause me no small amount of stress, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m also more productive. We used to watch a lot of TV. I was burned out at night and just didn’t have it in me to do anything else. At some point over the past month, we’ve stopped even turning it on. It wasn’t a conscious decision. We just have so much to do and talk about, we never get around to it. Now I come home from long days at the office, spend time with my kids, then jump into business building activities for her new company, or develop my personal brand. Sometimes I switch gears and I work on pet creative projects or hobbies or read one of the half-dozen or so books I’m trying to get through at any given time. And it feels great.
I am not speaking as someone who has a long track record of success. I am speaking of someone who feels very strongly that I am on the cusp of great success. My gut’s been telling me for months that this is the year that things are going to start clicking. I half-seriously told my wife in January that I was going to lose 30lbs. this year. March isn’t even over, and I’ve already lost 25lbs. I also told her back in January that this year, I felt we were going to finally begin to create success in our business pursuits. Just last week, she started her first real estate brokerage as a sole proprietor. Neither of us planned for the things we were doing to go so well or so quickly, but when you approach your challenges with energy, passion, and optimism, you might be surprised what happens. Whether or not this year winds up as a success for us on paper, just the fact that we are thinking positively and overcoming challenges makes it more successful than a typical year for us, where I’m cynical and negative about everything and she has to drag me kicking and screaming toward the goal line.
Don’t be a drain. Tell-all blogger, entrepreneur, and former millionaire James Altucher says that you should cut out the negative people in your life, because they steal your energy. What happens if you’re the negative person? What does that say about you? (Altucher also says that you can increase your productivity 500% by not being this kind of person. I agree.)
I feel like I have a new lease on life. I get in the car every morning excited about what I can accomplish today. And I focus my efforts (and my prayers) on being the best, most productive guy I can be just for that day. Every today is all I can focus on, or I get daunted. But one day at a time, you can do anything. And one day at a time, a bad day isn’t such a loss. After all, you can take another crack at it tomorrow.
I realize that I probably sound pretty cliché. I’m okay with that. It’s all true. And if you want it badly enough, it can be true for you too.
This morning when I got in the car, I noticed that my phone was dead. It had been on the charger all night, but something had obviously malfunctioned, and so I was stuck with a two-hour commute and no access to the audiobook I’m currently listening to, China Mieville’s Embassytown.
I was pretty annoyed. Then I remembered that I had a flash drive in my pocket, and on that flash drive was Cory Doctorow’s Makers, which I hadn’t quite finished before Thanksgiving, around which time my attention shifted to the mind-bending linguistic alien studies found in Embassytown. I hate to break a narrative, but I hate driving to work without a book even more, so I opted to go back and finish Makers. (By the by, Cory Doctorow is a big advocate of open publishing models, so if you want to get a copy of Makers for free, you can do that here.)
Makers is a novel. It’s a novel about the near future, and it’s a future in which large corporations are losing steam doing whatever craptastic things they’ve always done, so they begin to invest in microstartups. Predominately, they invest in people who make cool things out of abandoned older things. The two main characters – Perry and Lester – do things like build mechanical computers, robot toasters, or use a choreographed assortment of mechanical Elmo dolls that form a hive mind capable of driving a car. Easier, perhaps, to let the characters themselves explain it:
“I got the idea when I was teaching an Elmo to play Mario Brothers. I thought it’d get a decent diggdotting. I could get it to speedrun all of the first level using an old paddle I’d found and rehabilitated, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. The dead mall across the way is a drive-in theater, and I was out front watching the silent movies, and one of them showed all these cute little furry animated whatevers collectively driving a car. It’s a really old sight-gag, I mean, like racial memory old. I’d seen the Little Rascals do the same bit, with Alfalfa on the wheel and Buckwheat and Spanky on the brake and clutch and the doggy working the gearshift.
“And I thought, Shit, I could do that with Elmos. They don’t have any networking capability, but they can talk and they can parse spoken commands, so all I need is to designate one for left and one for right and one for fast and one for slow and one to be the eyes, barking orders and they should be able to do this. And it works! They even adjust their balance and centers of gravity when the car swerves to stay upright at their posts. Check it out.” He turned to the car. “Driving Elmos, ten-HUT!” They snapped upright and ticked salutes off their naked plastic noggins. “In circles, DRIVE,” he called. The Elmos scrambled into position and fired up the car and in short order they were doing donuts in the car’s little indoor pasture.
“Elmos, HALT” Perry shouted and the car stopped silently, rocking gently. “Stand DOWN.” The Elmos sat down with a series of tiny thumps.
Suzanne found herself applauding. “That was amazing,” she said. “Really impressive. So that’s what you’re going to do for Kodacell, make these things out of recycled toys?”
Lester chuckled. “Nope, not quite. That’s just for starters. The Elmos are all about the universal availability of cycles and apparatus. Everywhere you look, there’s devices for free that have everything you need to make anything do anything.
“The universal availability of cycles and apparatus.” Free stuff that you can use to make new stuff that’s even better. It’s a truly first-world opportunity, and a fascinating one. Our garbage has massive processing power, and it lies untapped and waiting for someone to repurpose it.
The book is fascinating for its premises and ideas, and I kept finding myself wondering how I was compelled to spend so much time in a story arc that lacked much of the kind of major conflict/resolution processes I’m used to in a novel. The thinking, though, is pretty revolutionary, and ultimately fairly believable. And underlying it is a theme that I can’t help identifying with. As spoken by Tjan, one of the book’s main characters, “when you do cool stuff, you end up making money.”
This is something I’ve always wanted to believe. “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” People say that all the time. I’ve never been able to fully buy that. Lots of people do things they love and are poor because of it. And some people can’t ever figure out how to monetize what they love, even if they’re really good at it. That line from the John Mayer song comes to mind: “All we need is love is a lie ’cause we had love and we still said goodbye…” Things don’t always work out for even the most talented. You’ve got to bridge the gap between what you love to do and the people who will pay you to keep doing it.
There’s also the bifurcation of work. In this world, I think you can distill the types of jobs people have into two main categories. There are makers and there are doers. Makers are the artists, engineers, writers, poets, architects and chefs of the world. They are homo faber, and they comprise a great number of professions. They invent, they build, they cook, they inspire. They are driven by beauty and the question of what isn’t, but could be. Doers are the salesmen, executives, PR people, lawyers, doctors, teachers, marketing folks, etc. These are the people who make commerce – and life itself – happen. They commoditize, they fix systems, they keep the wheels turning and the lights on and the folks breathing. The Makers, often as not, are too focused on the making and not enough on the Doing. And the Doers suffer from similar shortsightedness, and often focus all their attention on keeping things going instead of creating things that are worth going for.
This is perhaps overly simplistic or dualistic, and there’s certainly overlap between the two fields. Plenty of people are part Maker and part Doer, and they’re probably very successful insofar as they can achieve balance in this respect. Or at the very least, they’re more adaptable. In a way, I think I fall into this hybrid category myself. I am a Maker down to my bones, and yet I often find myself in jobs where I spend most of my time Doing, not Making. I jump at the chance to Make, and yet I continue to Do because that’s where I’ve found more success. I find very little appeal in the notion of starving artistry. Not when I have five kids and a mortgage. No thank you. (Ironically, my Twitter feed is open, and a quote just streamed past, “Responsibility to the art is the only reason to make art.” This is a dispute that will likely never end. Art for art’s sake vs. art for pay. That is the question!)
All of this is germane, though, in how we define ourselves. When people ask me what I do, I can choose to tell them my job title, or I can trot out my well-worn, “I’m a writer.” Recently, though, my wife sort of stunned me when she said to me, “Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe you’re just good at writing. If you were a writer, don’t you think you would finish something?”
I was troubled by this, but there’s something to it. She said this to me over a month ago, and I became more determined than ever that I was going to finish NaNoWriMo and prove to myself (and her) that I was in fact a writer and that I could finish something. Of course, we wound up moving to the new house during November, which ate up two of my long weekends, and then we had family and friends visiting around Thanksgiving for a week-and-a-half solid, and I realized that there was just no chance I was making it to 50,000 words by November 30th. In fact, I haven’t quite made it to even 5,000. Now, I can blame this on extenuating circumstances, and that’s probably even fair. But I can’t help feeling like it’s just another excuse.
This morning, we broached the topic again. I mentioned how with over a week of family visiting, I didn’t pull out my camera even once.
“What does that say about me?” I asked.
“It says that you’re normal.” She said. “And it’s about time.”
“But that doesn’t make me a very good photographer. Photographers always have their cameras ready to go.” I objected.
“You’re not a photographer.” She said. “You’re someone who is good at photography.”
“But what am I then?” I asked.
“You’re husband. And a father.”
She sounded like she was telling me the most obvious thing in the world. And in a way, she was. I am a husband and a father, and those things do come first. But I am something more than that. I’m restless unless I have a creative project to work on. If my work isn’t engaging me, I have something going on at home. A photobook. A story. A video. A design. Something. And maybe the problem is that I’m not necessarily a writer or a photographer or a designer but some combination of those things. The evolution of my self-perspective is that what I am is a storyteller, and that all these things I do are just tools that facilitate my way of being a Maker. They also facilitate my day job, which is also not how I would define myself. I am not just a manger or an association executive – I’m a person who builds relationships and facilitates communication among disparate parties. I build relationships by finding the narrative threads that bring cohesion to the whole picture, and I tie them together.
But how do you sell being a storyteller to people? How do you put that on your resume or write it in to your annual review? I’m OK with having an alter ego – the guy who creates things on his own for fun (and the potential chance of capitalizing on that, which is extremely validating no matter how much of an art purist you are) and goes to work and does other things for his career. But whenever possible, it’s fantastic if you can have a synthesis of all of it. If you can do cool stuff, and just end up making money.
It’s also possible that I’m barking up the wrong tree trying to define myself by what I do. But I can’t help seeing what I do (or make – here’s the blurring of being a Maker and being a Doer again) as an extension of who I am. What about you? Do you define yourself in similar ways? Or is work just something that happens – even if it’s work you do if nobody is paying you to do it?
It’s 73 degrees this morning.
This came as a shock. It feels…cold. 73 degrees should not feel cold to a guy who is from Upstate New York. But the Washington, D.C. area has had over 100 days this summer with highs in the 90s. We’ve probably had a dozen days with highs in the triple digits. Day in, day out, morning and night, it’s been hot, stuffy, and more often than not, humid.
Then, all of a sudden – BAM! A gorgeous morning. It’s not even supposed to break 90 today.
A drastic change in weather, the subtle shift in the angle of sunlight, subtle shifts in barometric pressure – if you’re paying attention, all of these have perceptible affects on one’s state of mind. It’s a feeling, however understated, that change is coming. That Autumn is on its way. If you have a whole slew of positive memories and emotions associated with a particular season (like I do about Fall) then these little shifts can significantly reorient your frame of mind.
I’ll never forget the way I didn’t get this feeling when I lived in Arizona. There were changes – it’d get cooler, there would be some occasional rain – but by and large the view out my living room window looked the same on Christmas Day and the 4th of July. There was something monotonously brown about the whole experience, and it numbed the parts of my brain that start firing excitedly when I sense something different afoot. Unfortunately, those are the parts of my brain that provide me with my strongest sources of inspiration and best work. Lack of change kills my muses, as it were.
I see a similar effect on Fridays of late. I recently worked out an agreement with my office that allows me to work remotely on any Friday where there isn’t an essential meeting or project that requires my physical presence. This saves me roughly 1.5 to 2 hours of commuting, and lets me choose my optimal environment. I usually go to Starbucks, grab a coffee, hook into the WiFi and start pounding out work. Not being at the same desk with the same lighting and the same distractions makes a difference. Not being at home also helps. Let’s face it: human beings are creatures of habit, and those habits form ruts if we do them long enough.
I have work habits and home habits but I don’t have Starbucks habits. At least not yet. I have noticed that I tend to order the same thing, sit at one of two tables that I like, always face the door so I can see what’s going on outside and who’s coming in, and so on. So far, these habits aren’t counterproductive. They don’t waste time like water cooler conversations do, and the environment doesn’t make me feel trapped in the same old same old like work and home often do. If it starts to feel that way, I’ll probably have to find somewhere else to make the magic happen.
All I know is that change really does do you good. I think more clearly, I work more efficiently, and I feel less bound by my usual constraints. If you don’t do this once in a while, try it out. If your workplace doesn’t have a telecommuting policy, do it when you’re brainstorming something else. Are you a writer? Get away from your usual workspace and bring your work with you. Are you a designer? Go look at the work of others. Walk into a comic book store. Go to a museum. Are you stuck trying to think your way through a complex personal/financial/logistical problem? Go find somewhere beautiful that you haven’t been in a while (or ever) and spend some time there.
It may very well surprise you how much it will help.
I don’t know who Justin Kownacki is. I do know that his name sounds vaguely Slavic, he lives in Baltimore, and he does some sort of social media consulting. I also know that he appears to be fairly smart. Smart people often say things that make me smarter, so I sometimes listen to what they say.
Justin posted something last month about “The Real Reason I Tweet So Much.” I just read it. It’s one of those smart things I was talking about:
Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why it’s so easy for me to diverge from my own best laid plans. Why is it so common for me to start the day with a completely reasonable to-do list, only to spend the next hour devouring links from MediaBistro? And I think I’ve figured out a few of the reasons why I willfully neglect my own better judgment.
Social media interaction is a quick, cheap win.
Yes, I could spend hours writing well-researched blog posts, or months creating original videos, or years building self-sufficient startups, or… I could tweet something and see if someone else retweets it. And sure, the emotional spike I receive from seeing that retweet is microscopic compared to the charge I would get from landing a new client or launching a new business… but that tiny buzz is also immediate.
And if I feel it enough in a day, I can almost convince myself I accomplished something.
Ah yes. I know the feeling all-too-well. It’s not unlike the feeling of accomplishment I used to get playing video games. In real life, I was a directionless schlub who couldn’t find a path to success if it was marked with neon arrows. In a game, though, I was a hero. The best driver. The sharpest shooter. The brilliant strategist. Simulated successes achieved on a “moderate” difficulty setting were far more satisfying than real successes earned through good old fashioned boring, time-consuming hard work.
Social media is a lot like that. A pithy comment gets liked, retweeted, or responded to. A blog post gets comments from people telling me how much they loved (or hated) what I wrote. Heck, just today, I’ve checked my WordPress stats no less than a dozen times. In fact, I just did it again. After almost a year of inactivity, I got 73 hits today. 73 hits after more than eight months of flatline. Doesn’t that make me cool?
Nope. But it feels that way.
Justin goes on:
I like what procrastination says about me.
Actually, that’s not true. What I really like is the illusion that I can waste large chunks of my workday and still somehow be successful in the end. Allowing myself to get distracted is my subconscious way of pretending I’m immortal, and convincing myself that spending today ___ is completely fine because I’ll have a whole new day to make up for it tomorrow… and the next day… and the next day…
What’s sobering for me to realize is that, by this rationale, I’m actually more interested in always having a second chance than I am in getting something done right the first time. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like the implications. (And I’m the one implying them.)
There are days when I just write off accomplishing anything. Those are usually the days when by noon or one o’ clock, I’ve done little more than read 20 articles or blogs, responded to two or three e-mails (tops), watched at least three videos online, and peppered Twitter with the distilled wisdom/humor/insight I’ve gleaned from my digital foraging.
About a month ago, I tried to form a mantra for evaluating my working life. “Is what I’m doing making me money? If it’s not, why am I doing it?” Of course, money’s not everything. But when you have five kids and their stay-at-home mom depending on you to grease the wheels of housing, food, education, transportation, culture, and entertainment, you’d best deliver.
And yet there are plenty of days when this mantra doesn’t work. I tune it out. There might be something worth reading on Mashable. I just need one more cup of coffee. After I take that trip to the rest room, I can get comfy and get working. Wait, who just IMed me?
Real work can easily be replaced by empty busyness. You’re tired at the end of the day, but you have nothing to show for it. Except maybe the 37 Facebook notifications in your inbox.
Now that I’m blogging again, feel free to remind me of this little pearl of wisdom. I’ll make it easy by sharing it with you on Twitter.