Excuses are Deadly

3 April, 2012 at 6:56 am

It's never a good idea to build your house on sand.

Excuses are deadly. Don’t make them.

When you make an excuse, you’re giving yourself permission to fail.

People who want to succeed never say “I can’t” or “I couldn’t” or “It wasn’t my fault.” Those statements are made by people who find opportunity too hard to handle.

Many people believe that if they have an air-tight excuse, nobody can blame them for not doing better. If they honestly don’t know something, can’t understand something, or are unable to figure out how to take the next step, then it must be okay. It’s fate. Circumstances beyond their control have kept them from doing better or becoming more. Everyone else will understand.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Excuses are things we hide behind so that we can die a slow death. They don’t give us cover, they expose us as cowards. They show off our laziness and our sense of entitlement.

If we want to accomplish more, we need to turn off the TV and work harder. If we want to lose weight, we need to cut the crap out of our diet and put in the work. If we want happiness, we need to realize that now is the best time of our lives for achieving that, and go out and do it.

Tell yourself that today – just today – you won’t make excuses. That you’ll make a commitment not to let your forward progress get stopped by a problem, but that you’ll find away over it, under it, or through it. Count how many times you start to say you can’t, and tell yourself (even if you don’t believe it) that you can.

Don’t let excuses kill your chance to be happy and successful. They have no power over you except the power you give them.

Night Person or Morning Person? Does it Matter?

29 March, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Espresso

I’ve always been a night person. My natural rhythm is to stay up moderately late and sleep in. I was never an out all night kind of guy, but I’d crash at about 2 or 3AM and get up around 10 or 11AM. If left to my own devices, I’d get about 9 hours of sleep before waking.

Then I got married. My wife is much more of a morning person. With rare exceptions, she’s never asleep past 7AM. Not even on weekends. Our kids are pretty early risers too. In the beginning, I resisted this trend. I’d stay up late (my wife having fallen asleep on the couch, usually rather early) doing my thing. She’d be up in the morning and I’d sleep in. This was silly, the unnecessary overlap in our schedules, but I was immature and irresponsible, so I did it anyway. The day was going on without me, and it gradually began to irritate me more and more. I felt like I was missing something. I reluctantly began to cave in.

So my schedule shifted earlier. But I still resisted. After all, I’d say, I was still a night person trying to live a morning person’s life. And unwillingly. With great heaping gobs of coffee to assist me.

But finally I began to realize something. If I wanted to be productive, if I wanted to actually do something with my day, I had to get rolling before the sun was up. There wasn’t time to lay around sleeping. People depended on me. If I didn’t get up, I was reacting to my day, always playing catch-up. I was putting an undue burden on my wife, who was up long before I was and wound up having to take care of the kids alone. In addition to that, I needed a jump start on everything I wanted to accomplish. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being up before everyone else is. You feel like you have the advantage. Except that’s not just a feeling – there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that you really do.

Steve Murphy, CEO of publishing company Rodale, says, “A line in a William Blake poem inspired me to think differently about my day: ‘Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.’ This has made a huge difference in my life. Now, I take out a yellow pad every morning and write my thoughts for the day, which allows me to be much more strategic and proactive than reactive.”

I used to think my most creative time was late at night. And while I do get ideas then, I very rarely execute on them at that time. I’m usually too burned out. I’ve learned through experience, though, that my absolute best time to create things and get work done is first thing in the morning – something I would never have known if I hadn’t started rolling out of bed.

I rarely get a chance to use that time to the best of my ability right now, because family obligations and my work schedule put a crimp on the early hours. So I’ve decided I need to start getting up earlier. I usually get up around 6:30AM, so today I got up at 5:30AM. After a 5AM alarm. With mixed results. But I got out the door closer to on time, felt less rushed, and didn’t make my daughter late for school (a common occurrence, since I drive her in.) I plan to keep shooting for earlier, until (hopefully) I can do a 4:30AM wake-up. That may be a bit aggressive, since I don’t get to the office very early, and consequently get home rather late. And many evenings, I work until midnight or 1AM on projects or business ideas, which doesn’t leave much time for sleep – which is usually interrupted by a kid with a bad dream or a crying baby anyway. But it’s a goal, and if going to bed earlier helps me to make better use of that early time, I’ll do it. As the days get warmer, my daily walks are going to need to get pushed into the darker, cooler hours, and early morning is just the time to go for a brisk stroll and brainstorm the day. I suspect it will become an important part of my process for fueling creativity.

I used to make excuses. Used to say I couldn’t get up, that it wasn’t my fault, that I was just wired a certain way. And maybe I am. But overcoming our nature is one of the things that every human being with an intellect and free will has the capacity to do. In fact, it’s what we should do, when it comes to things that hold us back. What I’ve realized about myself is that I made excuses because I was lazy and didn’t see the point. I’d rather have stayed up late watching TV or playing a video game than get up early and have to do something I didn’t want to do. Namely: work.

But once you find work you enjoy, you look forward to it. Productivity is no longer a dirty word. It’s an exciting one. Even if you don’t love your day job, make the most of the time you have throughout the day to do the work you do love. Even if you don’t get paid for it. In addition, find the things about your job that you can take satisfaction in, and do them well. Look for the fun challenges in the work, rather than expecting the work you do to simply satisfy you on every level. Get an edge on the competition and position yourself for future career growth. And make time to do creative projects that have nothing to do with the bottom line (though don’t be afraid to monetize them if you can!) just for the sake of doing them. Just because they’re fun!

I’ve come a long way since the days I would sleep half the day way. I now realize that getting up early is worth it, even thought it’s not always easy.

How about you? Are you a night person, or a morning person?

Why the Best Time in Your Life is Right Now

26 March, 2012 at 11:14 am

Carpe Diem

During a recent conversation with other thirty-somethings at a party, I mentioned how I thought that my senior year of high school was the best year of my life. Others said that college was. One friend pointed out that best time of his life is right now.

The more I think about it, the more I know that he’s right. Not just about his personal experience, though. I think that for everyone, right now is the best time of your life. Think about it: you may remember things fondly from the past – the freedom and fun of your younger years, falling in love, having your first child, taking that trip to Europe – but these things are all just memories, nostalgic images of good things that happened that can never be taken away from you. The old line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris,” comes to mind. But there’s more to that statement than that line. Try to dismiss your familiarity with one of the most-quoted scenes in movie history, and pay attention to what precedes it:

 

 

Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris.

Rick is advocating putting the past behind because the present moment provides an opportunity for greater happiness. We like to hold on to “Paris,” to the old memories, but that’s all they are. Today, you have choices before you. You get to decide what you want to do with every minute today. You get to capitalize on opportunities, share joy with others, experience beauty, and chart a course for future happiness.

For some of you, this may ring a little hollow. Life can be cruel sometimes. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Hard times happen. I won’t dispute any of this. In fact, I’d say I understand it fairly well.

In 2007, my mother-in-law was murdered. In 2009, after my father-in-law fell ill, I quit my job so that we could move out to Arizona to take care of him, and help manage his businesses along with what remained of his late ex-wife’s estate. After he returned to health a year later, he betrayed us, and we were left with nothing for our efforts. In what seemed to be a positive change, my wife got a job offer, so we moved to a new city and signed a lease on a house. Within a month, though, she was let go with no explanation, and we were suddenly without any income. We had already burned through the little savings we had. And we had just found out we were pregnant with our fifth child. There was such a backup on food stamp requests, we couldn’t get them for over two months. The best I could manage was to get a job paying only $13 dollars an hour with no benefits and no overtime. I was working 60 hours a week and barely covering our most basic expenses. Friends and family were loaning or donating money to us just to keep us afloat. Every day I was wracked with worry that my family wouldn’t have enough to eat, or would wind up out on the street. We needed new brakes on our van. Then our tires started to blow, one by one, because we they so badly needed replacing. I was desperate.

But for the first time in my life, I didn’t give up, or hide, or get stuck on the idea that the world owed me something. I prayed and I worked and I did my best to find some peace. I took my camera and shot my sister’s wedding – a first for me, and a much-needed distraction from my anxiety. I started applying for jobs back East, and when a guy I knew only through the Internet offered to loan me $2,000, I pounced. We got the car fixed, put our things in storage, found new tenants to take over our lease, and moved back to Virginia. We had no choice but to live in the basement of my parents’ town home, which was way too small for a family our size. Still, we were in a lot of debt, and couldn’t hope to afford a place of our own. Within 30 days, though, I managed to land a good job. Despite the way things had been, I had managed to keep positive, and I was able to build great relationships with my new employers during the interview process. 11 months after we landed in my parents’ basement, we closed on a beautiful home in the woods where my kids would at last have the room to play and grow that I had always wanted to give them.

And now we continue to thrive. My wife just started her own business. I continue to develop in my profession, I’m getting healthier than I’ve ever been, and I am pursuing personal growth with a new found passion. Yesterday afternoon, Jamie and I went to see a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Baltimore Concert Opera, and then went out to dinner with friends. Just two years ago, such a simple evening out would have been an almost unimaginable luxury. And while we’re still rebuilding our financial health, I am confident for the first time in my life that we can experience these little pleasures in life more often, because we’re only getting started on our path to success.

Life is full of struggle. Being a grownup requires that we embrace discomfort and responsibility. I remember high school with fondness, just like I think back on college nights sitting out by the bonfire, drinking too much and staying up too late and talking about all the important questions in life. But now I am answering those questions. Now is the time for accomplishment. Whatever your situation is at this moment, you can be working toward your goals and a better life. You can show the people you love how much you love them. If you have children, you can spend time with them, nourishing their curiosity and watching them grow. You can take the steps that will bring your work to the next level. You can grab a cup of hot coffee and go outside and breathe the cool, spring air and see that life is pretty damn good right now.

My advice? Get up early every day. Be grateful that you have another chance at life, and commit yourself to doing the best you can, just for that day. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t lay around in bed. Don’t drown your sorrows. Don’t plop down in front of the TV. Don’t just put on your “Carpe Diem” t-shirt. Actually go out and seize the day.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite bits of poetry, from T.S. Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady:

 

Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”

Expert is the New Normal

24 March, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Expert Terrain

Did your mom ever tell you that you were special? Did she hang your pictures up on the fridge? Did your dad tell you that you could do anything you wanted if you just set your mind to it?

Maybe you are special. But you know what? So are a lot of other people. I’m not kidding. Have you spent any time on this thing the kids these days are calling the “interweb”? There is so much talent out there it’s not even funny.

If you’re a writer, photographer, designer, content creator, or purveyor of fine video content, it’s a little daunting. You may have been hot stuff in your 5th grade story contest, but this is the world wide web, baby. You’re not playing with the farm team anymore.

It should scare you a little bit. Spend some time on the ubiquitous amateur photo and art sites, read some of the better blogs out there, get a read on the competition. Many of them are better than you at what you do, and they’re not even professionals. They have day jobs as statisticians and nail technicians, whatever the hell that means.

Am I talking to myself? Absolutely. There are some people out there that I just can’t help wishing I could be when I grow up. I remember one time – one shameful time – I watched a special effects video a kid put together on his home computer and I just walked away from the screen with angry tears in my eyes. That flipping kid wasn’t even out of high school yet, and I had spent four years getting my BA in Communications with a Radio & TV production concentration. I flat out did not have the skills to do what he had done. I was so pissed. That’s probably because I felt entitled.

Not anymore. Now I just work harder. I work longer. There’s no time left in my day for things like TV. Or how about video games? Man, how many years of my life have I spent chasing down a sense of virtual accomplishment at the business end of a rendered weapon. At the expense of real accomplishment. The clearer my goals become, the more stuff I push out of my schedule to make room to pursue them.

For example, I’m writing a blog post on Saturday afternoon. Who reads blogs on Saturday? Not many people. You can look at a stats chart for just about any website and see the dip on the weekend. But it doesn’t matter. I want to be writing every day, or as close to it as I can be.  I want to develop my following and my knowledge. I want people to find my content because it’s searchable and interesting. I want to be seen as an expert.

And that’s the point. None of us live in a small town world anymore. We live in a world where the bar is constantly raised by people we’ve never met. Not just people in New York, or Los Angeles, but people in St. Louis and Omaha and Aukland and Windhoek for all I know. (Windhoek is the capital of Namibia. Don’t feel bad if you had to look it up. I did too.)

Remember when everybody told you to get a college education to succeed in your career? Remember when you discovered that now that everyone else has a college education, you’re not ahead of the game, you’re just on par? Well this is just like that. Expert is the new normal. Talented people have more tools at their disposal to make their work get noticed and make a living doing what they love than ever before. And they’re out there doing it while you’re eating Fritos and watching a Chuck marathon. (It’s a great show, but SNAP OUT OF IT, MAN!!)

Mediocrity is just so…mediocre. If you want to coast in life, you can probably get by, but I’ve tried it and the results are (unsurprisingly) not very exciting. If you want a life less ordinary, a life filled with satisfaction and success, I suggest that you bust some ass and develop your expertise in something. Hopefully something that you love. Eat it, sleep it, breathe it, read about it until your eyes bleed. Talk about it. Challenge your assumptions. Be bold and go out there and make predictions and stake your claim and get noticed. Don’t pretend to be an expert and don’t you dare go calling yourself one. Prove it. Let your work speak louder than your resume. If you’re doing the right things, your CV is searchable and thus, demonstrable.

Yesterday, I participated in a workshop on crisis communications. I was in a room full of communications professionals. For most of them, communications was their full-time job. (For me, it’s only a part of what I do.) We were handed a crisis scenario and told to come up with a plan. I was nervous. I felt I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t know any of the people I was working with, and in fact was only introducing myself as the assignment was being handed out. I wanted to analyze, to hold back, to make notes and re-organize. Admittedly, I sometimes favor a defensive strategy, (nerd metaphor alert) fortifying my castle and preparing for the siege rather than scorching the earth and searching for plunder. But I saw a lack of leadership in my group and I decided I had might as well go out of my comfort zone and step up. I took the reigns, and started organizing everyone’s contributions. I wrote up a list of action items and divided it into categories (internal plan and external messages). Sensing that the pressure was off of them, the group turned to me to be the spokesman as each team presented their approach.

When I was finished, the next group that went started out by saying, “We came to many of the same conclusions you did, though we couldn’t articulate them nearly as well…” It felt good. I liked knowing I had command of the room, for just a few minutes. Like people were listening to me because I knew what I was talking about. I saw the presenters smiling at me and nodding, like when a teacher is particularly proud of a student. The woman running the workshop stopped me at the end to compliment me and thank me for my contribution.

My initial inclination had been to hang back quietly out of the worry that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t up to the task. I usually have very good instincts, and so I tend to listen to them. But this instinct in particular has never done anything for me but keep me from achieving the things I really want. So I’ve learned to stop listening to it. And now I’m getting things done. I’m earning those little successes that build your confidence and make it easier to take a risk the next time. Everybody needs those. On the road to becoming a champion, you can afford a few losses as long as you rack up enough wins.

So my question to you is: are you ready to be an expert? To do outstanding work? To accomplish things – small and big – instead of just talking about doing it?

If not, what’s holding you back?

Stop Believing You’re Entitled (and Feel Good About it)

19 March, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Which is it? Sun, or storm?

 

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.

 

 

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