Turning things upside-down

Flying Lesson
Photo “flying lesson” courtesy of Peter Shanks on Flickr

We’ve all asked ourselves the question “Why bother?” We all have a To Do list. We all wish that some things in life were different.

When you turn something on its head, you get a new perspective.

The things in your life you’d be happy to never change, a Not To Do List, an answer to the question Why not bother?

My partner works the midnight shift. When all of a sudden you are eating lunch at 3 in the morning, your body gets confused. It knows what 3 am is, and it knows what to do with lasagna. But it doesn’t know what to do with lasagna at 3 in the morning. My point is that you learn a lot of new things when you stay up all night, instead of all day.

If you turn a problem upside-down, it looks like a solution. An upside-down barrier is an opportunity. The only way to get good answers is to turn a good question upside-down and shake it until what you’re looking for falls out.

All of the valuable lessons came to you in the toughest times of your life. The experiences you wanted to run away from at the time are the same experiences you keep returning to today for your wisdom.

A frown is a smile upside-down. Yesterday it was awful, but today you are laughing about it. We turn the world over all the time. It’s how we learn, discover, and grow.

The most delicious meals you’ve eaten were fertilized with some of the most unappetizing stuff. That’s the reality of nature, and of life. You can fight reality, or understand and use it to your advantage.

Opposites are connected. You can turn darkness into light, bitterness into contentment, emptiness into fulfillment. How? But turning over misery to discover gratitude.

What do you do? Who are you? Keeping two sets of books.

Ledger
Image “Vintage ledger paper tags” courtesy of Cutiepie Company

What do you do?

It’s the question most often asked at cocktail parties. “What do you do?” is an ice breaker, a cliché, a point of departure, or just something to say when you’re not sure what to say. It can also represent genuine curiosity.

Who are you?

It’s a big, and personal, question. That’s why we don’t ask it at cocktail parties. Rarely is the question Who are you? answered by what someone does.

– Who are you?
– I am Dentistry.

In a perfect world, What we do is Who we are, and Who we are is What we do. But we don’t live in that perfect world, so we keep two sets of books. In the day we do, in the evening we are.

We put our loves and priorities and hopes and passions—in short, our authentic selves—on a shelf, where they wait for us, until we return at the end of our shift.

A ledger of tasks, a ledger of love. Money and joy, productivity and meaning. What you do and Who you are.

Who are you? Ask, and tell. Keep one set of books. Start the revolution.

Things that don’t matter

Thirty years ago my university professor quoted a friend. “I’ll never forget this,” he said. “It’s one of the most wise things I’ve ever heard.”

Everything matters, and nothing matters.

In about 4.5 billion years, our galaxy will collide with another. They won’t actually touch—instead they’ll blend together. There’s a high chance our solar system will be ejected from this newly-merged galaxy, and will drift until it is absorbed, or destroyed, or otherwise transformed by an encounter with something else.

The good news is that our sun will have exhausted itself by then, and all of the inner planets, including Earth, will have been vaporized.

Does it matter?

The only difference between a weed and a plant is that you want one of them to die and the other to grow. Dandelions matter if you make dandelion wine.

Everyone has his own version of an emergency. We want the world to get out of our emergency’s way, and we’ll push past anyone else’s emergency to get where we’re going. An emergency is a weed, or a flower. It’s a matter of perspective.

Or it’s not.

The point is that I’ve had clients who for years have banged their heads on things that didn’t matter. They had their version of an emergency, and there they were, trying to solve riddles like How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Somehow it never occurred to them to ask “Does this really matter?”

Socrates once said that the way to overcome a fear was to fear something greater. If you have one big, overarching fear, you become a big-picture fearer. Your life gets some focus. You figure out what really truly matters, and what you most definitely want to see, and don’t want to see, happen in your life.

Problems are like friends. You have fewer than you realize. But, sure, go ahead and tell yourself you have a lot. Only, you probably don’t.

Identifying the problems that aren’t problems is a skill. Often there’s a problem behind the problem, and a problem behind that. A ten-layered onion is still only one onion. Sounds simple, but I’ve met the people who think they have ten onions.

That means 90% of their time is spent thinking about a layer of their problems and ignoring the core 10% where the one root problem is.

Maybe we should throw away our problems the way we clean out our closets. You don’t put on everything in there anyway.

How many comfortable pairs of jeans do you have? How many friends? How many problems? What really matters?

Lotteries and lattices

Lattice
Photo “Lattice” courtesy of Sam Cox on Flickr

I’ve never won a lottery. Maybe that’s because I’ve never bought a ticket, ever.

The lottery is a state of mind. Many of us try to win the lottery of the mind. I have lost this kind of lottery many times.

The lottery of the mind says it all depends on the lucky break. Get it, and you’re home-free. Don’t get it, and you’re a failure.

Your book, your pitch, your project, your investment.  You look for the big lucky break. But guess what. Big lucky breaks seldom happen in life, so chances are you’re a loser. If you’re playing the lottery of the mind, you know what I’m talking about it.

Sure, some of us will win the lottery, maybe even on the first ticket. And the rest of us? We’ll need lattices.

In the absence of one life-changing event, our lives will be built of many small events.

Not one huge best-seller, or one giant breakthrough, but ten or twenty moderate successes intersecting our many other efforts.

You can build a reliable structure of lattices, but it takes time. No one, individual lathe will suffice. The truth is most people won’t even notice that you’re putting the pieces together. Not until you’ve created the total effect out of a combination and coordination of units.

Play the lottery, and you’ll likely lose every time. You’ll feel your time and energy was wasted. All you’ll see is the prize you never got, and that you’ll probably never get.

Make something of lattices, and every effort—no matter how small—will contribute to the greater end. No work will ever be wasted, and every step will be meaningful.

Motivation versus inspiration

A work-out for the soul. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

We can be inspired by many things: a sunset, a song, an idea, the powerful stories of others.

Inspiration is a breath. A spirit. An infusion that quickens the mind. We take it in, and we are exalted.

Inspiration is the suggestion of grand possibility.

TV crime investigators seek motives. Every criminal is assumed to have a purpose, a reason for his actions which makes logical sense of them.

Motivation, like inspiration, stimulates the mind—but the stimulation points to a definite goal. Motivation is motion.

The difference between inspiration and motivation is perspiration.

Inspiration says, “It is possible.” Motivation says, “Here is the purpose and the path: Go!”

Infinity

Three chords and the truth. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

There are tens of thousands of pop songs, going back dozens of centuries. We will never run out of pop songs, because human creativity is infinite.

The ingredients of a pop song are melody, beat, and (in most cases) lyrics.

The major and minor scales contain seven notes. The English alphabet contains twenty-six letters. The alphabets of other languages are even smaller.

Most pop songs are built on a few chords and a motif (or hook) of less than six notes.

From a few simple ingredients, infinite possibilities. This is the case not only in music but in the arts generally.

If you have a little bit, you have more than what you will ever need, because the world of the human imagination is infinite.

One good idea

How to do anything with ideas. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

What do Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin have in common?

All of them had one great idea.

What do you want? What do you need? Where do you want to go? All it takes is one good idea.

A software installation file is a self-contained package with step-by-step instructions. An idea is a self-contained package of step-by-step actions.

Doing begins with conceiving. Ideas beget actions.

Here is the simple, fool-proof formula for a great idea:

bad idea –> bad idea –> bad idea –> bad idea –> bad idea –> [etc.] –> great idea

What do Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin have in common?

All of them had bad ideas.

Having a great idea is the outcome of a banal and tedious process. That’s why so few of us bother.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of people who have no idea, your one idea will make you a champion.

Every day, write your ideas: big ideas, small ideas, practical ideas, fantastical ideas, money-making ideas, life and love ideas, gratitude ideas, household ideas, book ideas, change ideas, self-improvement ideas, decorating ideas, organization ideas, planning ideas.

In one year, fill a 365-page book with (mostly bad) ideas.

If a million-dollar idea is also a one-in-a-million idea, you’ll need 1,000,000 ideas. Or you may get lucky. Your million-dollar idea could be your first idea, or your tenth, or your 129th. The point is to keep going. Don’t stop at 128.

One good idea can make your day. One great idea can change your life.

As soon as possible, have one good idea.

Strivers, voyagers, connectors, dreamers

Goals, diversions, relationships, ideas. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

Some lives are lived with purpose. The people who live these lives are all about results. Inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and politicians often fall into this category. When these people succeed, they make the history books.

Some lives are lived for the journey. The people who live for the voyage are not interested in results. They care about motion. Curiosity, a sense of wonder, the joy of discovery, and aesthetic beauty launch them into the world.

Some lives are lived for people. These lives are seen through the lens of relationships. Relationship people want to make deep connections. When they have a bonding experience, the experience is positive.

Some lives are lived for ideas and the play of mind. These lives can seem lonely and isolated to others, but the people who live for ideas have a rich and vibrant inner life. They will never be in the movies or on the news, but in their imaginations an extraordinary drama, much more compelling to them than the mundane world of pop culture, unfolds.

Be a Change Leader

Loss and leaders. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

Change
Photo courtesy of m.a.r.c. on Flickr

All change is loss.

Change is commitment to giving something up in order to get something better.

I will lose 20 pounds. I will quit smoking. I will spend less time procrastinating.

It is the same in an organization or community. As a change leader, you are asking people to give up something known, familiar, and predictable—in exchange for something uncertain, unknown, and unpredictable.

Uncertainty breeds fear and mistrust. Address these emotions head-on by focusing first on positives.

Ask: “What do we value? What is good? What works for us?”

Identify the present positives. Build on the foundation of positive, shared values. Demonstrate your commitment to the good. This will reduce fear and mistrust and build consensus.

Now that you have focused everyone’s mind on the present positives, transition to the future positives.

A commitment to losing 20 pounds is not a future positive: it is the action that attains the future positive. It is a negative that focuses our minds on loss. A commitment to quit smoking is likewise not a future positive.

Negatives drain, positives energize. Find, and focus on, the future positives.

Ask “Why?” The answer to Why? will address the unspoken question “What’s in it for me?”

Why should I give up doing things the way I have always done them?

Your organization or community will champion change more readily if you show them the future positives, in a clear and concrete way.

Example: Don’t commit to “losing 20 pounds.” Commit instead to feeling and looking great at your new weight of X pounds.

Energize change by visualizing the Why? There are many reasons to lose 20 pounds, and if you identify the fundamental Why, you will have a powerful motivator.

Tell others what the future looks like and on what date it will be realized. Be as specific as possible.

Show how future positives are linked to present positives. Change, properly managed, supports and enriches our present positives. It does not displace, or replace, our values and our good.

Change requires you to ask good questions and to listen. Don’t dictate: facilitate.

Move from positive to positive.

Find the bedrock of shared values. Build upon strengths. Have a clear vision of the future.

The wisdom of balance

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Photo courtesy of Sepehr Ehsani on Flickr

I used to work for a company whose motto was “Work Hard, Play Hard.” I sure remember the working hard bit. Maybe what they meant was “Work Hard, Play Hardly.”

Most days need to be about meeting deadlines, advancing goals, and taking care of business. There should also be days of idleness, but our busyness tends to nix that idea.

We struggle for balance. Or we don’t, because we’ve given up on dreams.

Our jobs are demanding and relentless. Life is complicated. It’s not our fault.

Balance, we decide, is a luxury. It’s for the rich and powerful, not for us working slobs.

Balance, however, is not really about work-life ratios.

Sure, that’s how we experience it—as a hellish time-management crush.

I’m super fortunate, because I’m my own boss. But don’t think for a moment this exempts me from the Struggle for Balance. My boss is a tyrant.

I love what I do as a consultant. It’s interesting and challenging work, and people tell me how much they appreciate it. I’d happily do it nine days a week.

The problem is that introverts, like me, come home exhausted. Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Every day we give our energy, focus, enthusiasm, concentration, and big smiles to the people we meet in the world. We want to help our customers any way we can. We work hard because we feel responsible. We work like we’re saving the world.

Then we come home and spend the evening on the couch. We have nothing left for our family, except maybe our moans about how tired we are and how hard our days was.

Does this sound like work-life balance?

Like I said before, stop thinking about balance as a work-life issue. There’s something deeper going on. Let me explain.

Growing up, I was exposed to two very different types of family dynamic. One was very British: reserved, demure, polite, private.

The other was Mohawk: loud, headstrong, opinionated, brash, combative.

Both styles had their virtues. Both definitely had their dangers.

My Mohawk relatives said exactly what they thought, without sugar-coating it. I admired this. I thought of my Mohawk aunts and uncles as ass-kickers. But as I got older, I saw the fruits of a lived lived by the principle “my way or the highway.”

My reserved English relatives were polite and conciliatory. I loved how easy it was to be with them. There were never fights or opinion contests. But again, as I got older I saw a dark side. The reserved side of my family also had strong wills. They just chose to rely on other methods, like passive-aggressiveness, to get their way.

I realized a long time ago I was capable of either extreme. The question was “Is there a good balance?”—between being candid and diplomatic, and between letting people know exactly what you think, need, and want, but without steamrolling over their needs and feelings.

Balance is not about how much you work. It’s about how you ensure that your needs are met in a way that respects and accommodates the needs of the people around you.

The people at work, the people at home, the people you meet in the world.

The company that says “work hard, play hard” when what they really mean is work until you drop is not balancing the needs of the company with the needs of employees.

A workplace out-of-balance is going to face low morale, low worker retention, hostility, and rebellion. The out-of-balance family will have conflict.

Either you work to achieve balance, or you wait for the storm. There’s no third way.

Balance is a negotiation. Your needs, the needs of your boss, the needs of your colleagues, the needs of your family, the needs of your organization and stakeholders.

When your needs are being met, you live in balance with others. When they are not being met, raw emotion takes over. You feel you’re on rough waters. The boat rocks. It’s as if you’re about to capsize.

You are the boss of your needs. Only you can open the Needs Negotiations in a way that restores balance.

What needs of yours are being met? What needs could be met better? What can you do to bring your needs, and the needs of those around you, into balance? What is the next step?

Big Negatives, small positives

The small picture. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

Notepad

Human history is rich with stories of paradise: Heaven, Nirvana, Utopia, The Sweet Hereafter.

Each of us has imagined a personal world of perfect bliss. One day we’ll go there.

In fact, that’s what it’s called. One Day.

One Day when we’ve lost 20 pounds. One Day when we make more money. One Day when we pay off our debts. One Day when we’ve solved our big problems.

One Day, we’ll start living for real.

One Day lies beyond the realm of the Big Negatives. We humans tend to focus on negatives. It’s biological. We’d never have survived as a species if we weren’t forever attuned to risk, danger, and enemies.

The Big Negative is a mental check-list. It’s not only our problems, it’s the things we want but don’t have.

Drawing up a list of negatives and turning them into positives is not a bad thing. In fact, it can bring great satisfaction. We all need to face the problems in our lives that are within our power, and responsibility, to change.

But obsessing over the Big Negatives is a huge energy drain. Maybe in a few years, you’ll have crossed a couple Big Negatives off the list. Maybe not. We need a strategy that helps us fulfill long-term goals while also living our lives today.

Today is the realm of small positives. They’re all around us, right now. That’s why we take them for granted. It’s hard to see the small positive right in front of you when you’re dreaming about the day, twenty years from now, when you won’t have to deal with your idiot boss.

The cruel irony is that when you’re old, and your idiot boss is a distant memory, so too the small positives. That’s when we’ll look back to the good old days, regretting the things we took for granted.

Human nature. It takes some discipline to be otherwise. The good news is that we are also habit-forming creatures. Good habits, bad habits. We can do either.

Every week, make a list of a few small positives. Something you’re grateful for, something good you can easily do for a friend or colleague, something you always wanted to try or learn or see but have put off because you’re busy with the Big Negatives.

A little bit of knowledge

The world needs knowledge nutritionists. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Ignorance is blissful—a clean slate, not blemished by troubling facts.

From uninformed to mis-informed to ill-informed: junk knowledge, like junk food, can fill you without nourishing you.

Here is an experiment:

Read five books on any subject. Discuss the subject with the people you meet. What do you notice?

Chances are that most of the people you meet will not have read even one book on your subject.

It only takes a few months, at most, to read five books. And yet, to most people you will be an expert in your topic, simply because you have read five books.

Who truly knows what went wrong in Syria, or if and how it could have been prevented? Many people blame Israel and “the Jews” for the miseries of war in the Middle East and the Levant. Others blame America and the CIA. Still others blame capitalism, the oil companies, and corporations.

Junk food, junk knowledge. Both are cheap and abundant. “Send the Muslim refugees to Muslim countries,” some say of the Kobani Kurds.

Who are the Kurds? Christians, Sunnis, atheists, secularists. Or none of the above. They are human beings, diverse and complex.

The Kurds are a persecuted, stateless people, over 30-million strong and spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. There are millions of Kurds, but (for a number of ugly political and historical reasons) no Kurdistan.

On whatever topic you pick, you can become an expert, relative to 90% of the world, by reading five books, perhaps even one.

Clean up your mess

Good messes vs. bad messes. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

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Photo courtesy of udge, on Flickr

Messes can be figurative or literal.

You’ll find them in your thoughts, your relationships, your habits, your closets.

Messes can be emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual. Often they are more than one of this list.

My son cleaned his mess. When he was done, he was amazed at how big his room was, beneath all the chaos and clutter that had made it seem cloistered.

How do you feel when you walk into a mess? Your emotional state is related to your physical environment, whether or not you are consciously aware of it.

A cluttered mind can be creative. For years I had a desk that raised eyebrows. I have lived a messy life.

When I was single, my apartment was immaculate. There was a place for everything, and for everything a place. It was great.

Then we were two, and three, living in an apartment. I bought a house. There was much more space, and then much, much more material possessions.

I had a semi-finished basement that we turned over to my son. It was nothing but wall-to-wall toys. When he outgrew his Lego, it filled three large garbage bags and probably represented over a thousand dollars of spending. (We sold it for a hundred dollars.)

The point is that I have not lived a life of austerity and simplicity.

The mess of my son’s play was a creative, fun mess. Allowance should be made for messes.

I am learning the distinction between a good mess and a bad mess.

In his book, Double Your Income Doing What You Love, Raymond Aaron advises us to make a list of our messes.

Pick one each month and clean it up. Maybe it’s a relationship that has gone sour, or a problem you’ve allowed to fester because you don’t want to face it.

“Abundance is everywhere,” writes Aaron, “but you lock it out with every mess in your life.”

He’s right.

Some messes are fun and creative. Others are toxic. They clutter your mind and spirit, and they make you feel anxious and overwhelmed. They are a burden that prevents you from experiencing freedom.

Make a list of your messes.

Clean them up, and feel free.

Winner and Losers

Have great answers to better questions. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

Finish
Photo courtesy of Philo Nordlund on Flickr

In the Middle Ages, the king was the winner. He lived in a castle with legions of servants who brought him the best food and wine.

The king didn’t have air conditioning or aspirin or deodorant or a smart phone. You probably wouldn’t trade places with him, because his quality of life was quite low by the standard you enjoy.

However, he lived a much better life than the people around him, and everyone knew it.

That’s how the king won.

Imagine that you live in a mansion, and that you have a million dollars. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Again, the life of a winner.

But now imagine that everyone you know has 5 million dollars and a much bigger mansion than yours.

Suddenly, you’re not the winner anymore.

Comparing ourselves and our fortunes to the character and lives of others leads inexorably to a world of winners and losers.

The winner finishes first and takes the prize. Everyone else is a loser.

If the world is really about winning and losing in this simplistic way, the truth is that most of us are losers.

And, yet, the lives of the “losers” today are objectively better than the life of a Medieval king. And the king was a winner.

Today’s winner will be tomorrow’s loser, because even if he doesn’t change the world around him will.

Winning like a king is arbitrary, not absolute. It’s a made-up thing.

To win at baseball, you must score more runs than your opponent. Baseball is a made-up game with made-up rules.

Life is not baseball.

If you compare yourself to others, you’re not living your life—you’re living theirs. Or, rather, you’re trying to live their lives, but in a bigger, better way.

Winning is important. No one wants to be a loser. The question “What does it mean to live a ‘winning’ life?” is a good question.

Unfortunately, the world gives us many bad answers.

Winning at life begins with asking good questions and finding good answers.

Taking control

You are the boss of this. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

No one can control the weather. We can only control how we dress for it.

Sometimes the things we can’t control are life-and-death things. We can’t ignore life-and-death matters, nor should we. All we can control is our response to, and our management of, them.

You can’t make someone be nice to you. You can’t make someone else care. Whether or not you are nice, and whether or not you care, is within your control.

Maybe you will win the lottery. Maybe not.

Lotteries are random. But even random acts, such as random acts of kindness, are within your control—if they are your acts.

Sometimes, when I’m about to check my email, I’ve found myself wondering whether today is a day there will be something exciting, special, and memorable in my inbox.

Then I realize that I can control exciting, special, and memorable email—by sending it to someone.

Draw up a list of things you control. It can be anything: what you have for breakfast, what route you take to work, what you say today to colleagues, how you react to stressful things, what you choose to think about yourself.

Is there any way you can change, improve, or nourish the things you control.

Cultivate these things. Enjoy being in control of them.