The Expedition of Our Age

unnamedNothing is guaranteed.  There is no plan or path that can ensure the kind of life you want.  There are only opportunities with varying degrees of risk.  And sometimes the least risky opportunities are also those least likely to result in fulfillment.  The great success stories are the result of daring expedition and pursuit of unique goals.

There was a time when a college education was something of an adventure.  It was exclusive, not easy to get, and signaled something special.  Leaving your home town for a university was a big deal, a great expedition.  This is no longer true.  Going to college is not difficult today.  It’s not elite or rare.  Most young people can easily travel and live away from their home towns and many have even before college.  Today, college isn’t much of an adventure.  In fact, it attracts some of the most risk averse individuals, and perhaps paradoxically the higher ranked the school often the more risk averse its students.

There is a small but growing number of young people who see this and they’ve got the itch.  They go to college only to realize it’s a warmed over version of all the years of safe, institutional schooling they’ve just completed.  No one will question their decision to go.  No one will call them crazy.  The risk of flunking out is as minuscule as the risk of standing out.  The sense of adventure is gone, replaced with a sense of perpetual adolescence and paternalistic planning.

Those with the itch for real adventure realize that no one is going to give it to them.  The prefabricated social life and conveyor-belt career track isn’t enough.  If they want to embark on a daring expedition, they’ll have to do it themselves.  The great secret is that it’s far easier than anyone imagines.  All the resources exist already within arms reach.  Anything in the world you want to learn or do, anyone you want to meet, any personal challenge you want to give yourself, any skill you want to devote yourself to: they’re all doable, without anyone’s permission.

The world is waiting.  It won’t be found on dorm room couches.  It won’t be found in cinder block classrooms.  It won’t be given to those who simply follow the rules and don’t upset the apple cart.  It will be discovered – it will be created – by those daring enough to seek adventure and live life on their own terms.

The geographical territory of the earth has been largely discovered.  But we’re only on the borderlands of human potential.  It lies before us vast, untamed, full of mystery and possibility.  It will be explored by those brave enough.  No special qualifications are needed beyond courage, self-honesty, a hunger for self-knowledge, and willingness to break the mold.

The great expedition of our age is the self-created journey; the self-directed life.

You Have to Pick Two

I wrote recently about how you can’t have a growing business, a robust social life, and a great family life all at once.  You only get to pick two.  The implication is that, though everyone wants all three, you get a maximum of two if you want to succeed.  I’m beginning to think the heuristic is not just a maximum, but a minimum as well.  You don’t just get to pick two, you have to pick two.

If you pour yourself fully in to any one of these at the expense of the others, you’re unlikely to find long term success and fulfillment.  If you’re a passionate, single-minded entrepreneur, you need to create space for some kind of social life or family/significant other.  You won’t be your best if you don’t.

Many people accept this notion but mistakenly assume all that’s needed is a balance of time spent on the activities.  As long as I carve out 30% of my time to not work I’ll be balanced because I’ll be with friends or family.  This is far from the truth.  You need time with an interest or hobby around which friends congregate, or family time, but you can’t expect it to happen simply because you set aside time to not work.  You have to be just as intentional with your non-work time as you are with time spent working.  You have to be definite and deliberate in the creation of a social or family life.

Again, it’s not about the number of hours spent on each.  Maybe you’re able to pour yourself into a job with only a four hour workweek.  Maybe you can have a meaningful social life with nothing more than one kite-boarding session a week.  The point is to ensure you have more than one thing on which to put your energy and attention.  One needs to serve as an outlet for things left unexpressed in the other.

I don’t believe it’s really about creating a stark divide or work/life balance either.  Depending on your personality and habits, you may need that in order to do your two things.  Or you may need a seamless synthesis.  I tend to have a much better family and work life when I have fuzzier lines between them.  I love working from home. I’m writing this at the breakfast table with noisy kids all around.  I like taking my kids with me on work trips when I can.  I enjoy responding to emails at all hours, and I feel less stressed and more in the moment with family when I don’t have to put work completely on hold.  You may be the opposite.  Neither is better or worse.  The important thing is to have something outside of work to devote yourself to.

Are People Who Don’t Smile Unhappy?

Kids are rarely more happy then when they get candy.  Second might be hanging out with friends.  Somewhere near the top would be dressing up.  This explains why Halloween is so fun for them.  They’ve got endless sugar, lots of activity, costumes, friends, and plenty of running and yelling.  All while parents seem uncharacteristically relaxed (at least if they’re smart and brought a flask).

My kids love it.  You can tell immediately by looking at my oldest and youngest.  But my middle daughter might stump you.  She does not smile on Halloween.  She doesn’t giggle or chat about the candy she got or the decorations she sees.  She stares cold-blooded and steel-hearted and proceeds to the next house with ruthless efficiency.  There are severed heads, knife-wielding creepies, witches, ghosts, and reapers galore on October 31, but perhaps nothing is more frightening than my daughter as she mechanistically says the magic words, “Trick or treat”, and, “Thank you”.  Watching her can be a deeply unsettling affair.  She is on a mission and will not be denied.  I fear for any who impede her progress.

I ask her if she’s having a good time and she immediately, stoically replies a single syllable.  “Yes.”  I believe her.  I’ve known her since day one and this type A girl is intense when she’s loving life.  She can be as goofy as the next kid, but her form of pure bliss is very different from visions of cherubic tots bouncing about with constant smiles.  She is solemn about fun.  She has goals.

It’s no surprise that by the end of the night her candy bucket is 2 or 3 time as full as the others – even though her older brother has five years on her and can run faster and farther ahead and hit more houses.  She doesn’t break the rules.  If she’s told one piece she takes one piece.  If nothing is stated she takes a handful.  If she’s told no walking on the grass she doesn’t.  If it’s unclear she takes the shortest distance between two candy sources.

It took me a while to appreciate this manifestation of joy.  She’s not happy in the simpler, cheaper, more common sense of the word, but she seems to be experiencing a deeper delight than the others.  She anticipates and mentally prepares for it in advance.  She pursues it with intention.  She revels in it longer (in no small part because her candy buckets lasts a lot longer afterwards).  She’s more deeply upset if she’s stymied.  It’s been good for me to learn that, though she’s not always smiling, it doesn’t mean she’s unhappy.

She’s now the stuff of legend in my mind.  My favorite part of events like Halloween has become watching her intensity and single-minded pursuit of the prize.  I love her matter-of-fact affirmative response when I ask if she’s having a good time.  It’s less immediately rewarding as a parent when your kids don’t wear their jollies on their sleeve, but it’s fulfilling in a different way to see them take pleasure seriously.

The big challenge, now that I know lack of a smile doesn’t mean anything’s wrong, is figuring out when something is wrong.  It’s easy with visibly happy people.  With the more stoic, focused types you can’t always tell.  I’m still learning.

Why I Hate Citations

There was a time when citations were almost nonexistent even in academic work.  Today the word academic is not applied to anything that’s not full of citations.  It drives me nuts.

In my teens I remember writing a paper where the teacher required a minimum of five citations.  It seemed arbitrary and irritating to me so as a small act of rebellion I made the first citation something like, “My own mind”.  A childish and arrogant move to be sure, but I stand by the protest at the heart of it.  We were asked to write a paper making an argument on a topic.  Yet we were graded in large part by how many citations we had, regardless of the weight and cogency.  If I made a compelling case based on the internal logic of my argument, I could not get an ‘A’ unless I also had five citations, no matter how disconnected and useless the citations.  The academic world isn’t as bad as that class, but sometimes it’s not far off.

I understand the point of citations.  You want to maintain intellectual honesty and respectfully acknowledge those upon whose ideas you’ve built your own.  Unless you are doing a survey of literature or a study on a specific text, all of this seems possible in simple sentence form within the body of your work rather than via formal citation.  When formalized, a subtle citation seduction can sweep in and impresses readers, clouding their judgement of the content itself.  The appeal to authority or the demonstration of how common an idea is often becomes an argument for it’s validity.  I’ve even heard academics mock papers simply because they lack a sufficient number of citations, without addressing any of the ideas.

You might argue that all of those problems are problems with the way readers and writers use citations, not the system itself.  There is some truth to that, but I also think the formalization of the system has much to do with it.  When you are trained to rigorously cite everything and stop mid-sentence for footnotes*, the power of the argument suffers, and the readability definitely declines.  It also carries traces of the false and dangerous notion that ideas are scarce like physical property, having but one owner.  Citing someone implies they were the originator of the idea, which is almost never the case.  A great comedy sketch would be a scene in which a thinker was forced to cite everything, including the sources for the citations, and the sources of the sources, etc.  Tying an argument to a single source can be just as misleading as not tying it to anyone.

Prior to the formalization of citations thinkers still got credit for their work.  It’s not difficult to mention in the body of a text inspirations or sources.  It’s not difficult to add a “Further Reading” list at the end.  Both of these better reflect the truth of the situation, that all thinkers through time and space are engaged in a kind of great conversation, responding to and building on one another.  We all know that none of us is spinning original ideas absent outside inspiration.  We are part of a lineage.  If you read C.S. Lewis, for example, you have no trouble seeing the influences and ideas of Milton.  Sometimes Lewis mentions him by name, often he does not.  There aren’t citations to speak of (one of the reasons Lewis is considered popular instead of academic), but there is no lack of respect or pretension to originating ideas that came from elsewhere.

Citations sometimes seem more, not less arrogant to me than their absence.  They imply that anything not cited was perfectly original.  They imply a neat and tidy set of ideas, disciplines, and intellectual evolution.  If we’re honest, we can’t even remember our own intellectual development enough to source and cite the origin of many of our ideas.

This is not about not giving credit.  It’s not about being lazy.  In fact, it’s about pushing oneself to give credit in the much more difficult way.  To work it into the writing in a way that’s not awkward or disruptive or overly formal.  It’s about forming excellent and clear arguments that bring something new to the table, but that any intelligent person can see emerge from a larger tradition or body of knowledge.  It’s about intriguing and leading people to that body of knowledge rather than just listing it by publication date and publisher next to a tiny number.

I try not to cite as a discipline.  Most of my writing is in blogs and articles so there isn’t much need to cite anyway, or much cost to me for not citing, but after my initial youthful distaste for the undue respect given to citations qua citations, I gave myself this rule to see what would happen.  Everything I write comes from some other set of ideas or thinkers I’ve encountered.  My goal is to give credit and respect generously, and it almost feels demeaning to stick a great work into a little footnote.  If I can’t work their ideas into my own and, when I’m doing it more directly, communicate that I’m doing it, I think I’m missing something.

This is not a wholesale protest against the practice of citation.  It has uses, and probably many that I’m ignorant of since I’m not an academic.  My claim is simply that it’s over-used and that writing – especially academic writing – and thinking often suffer for it.



*I also hate footnotes

Is Sameness More Feared Than Difference?

There are a lot of cultural memes about accepting people who are different and embracing diversity of all kinds.  But I wonder if it’s actually harder to tolerate sameness than difference.

Consider people or ideas that cause the most upheaval.  They are often those that reveal the depth of sameness and lack of distinction in culture, rather than radical difference.  Tell someone an English degree is more worthless than a Math degree.  You’ll rile some people up, but it will mostly be a playful rivalry.  The distinction between these two degrees allows people to set themselves apart and sometimes argue, but both feel fairly secure in their unique place.  But say that all degrees, no matter what area of study, are essentially the same and that the believed differentiation is a farce, and you’ll have a lot of angry people on your hands.

Likewise there are always people who favor one religion and smear another.  They point to sharp contrasts between the beliefs and values of different religious texts and traditions.  Society can tolerate them and they’re not really threatening at the core.  The greatest heretics are those who claim that all religions are equally true or equally false.  The removal of differences and cherished uniqueness, and the revelation of sameness and lack of distinction threatens the very fabric of society.

People can tolerate difference.  They have categories for it.  They can tolerate hierarchy and the occasional odd one out.  They are scared to death of sameness.  They are terrified of discovering that they’re really a lot more like their neighbor next door or in a distant land than they are different.  The paradox is that most people strive for sameness.  They want their kid to be average, they want to be average.  That’s why almost everyone thinks they are middle class.  They don’t want to stick out on either tail of the bell curve.  They strive for it, but they don’t dare admit it.  The great mutual secret of society is sameness.  We believe that great distinctions exist, and huge divides between people and ways of life.  We don’t speak of the sameness.  The great times of crisis are when differences fade.  Rich and poor alike are decimated by economic collapse.  Flood and earthquakes are indiscriminate.  The break-down of perceived and real differences is perhaps more frightening and threatening to our culture than anything.

I’m still not entirely sure about this thesis, but there seems to be something here.  I’ll try to write more on it as I think more on it.  Feel free to send me examples, counter-examples, or thoughts.

Why I Blog Every Day

If someone told me there was something that cost $0 and only 20 minutes a day and it would help me…

  • Overcome fears
  • Build confidence
  • Improve thinking
  • Improve communication
  • Build social capital
  • Improve productivity
  • Enhance creativity
  • Bring new opportunities
  • Increase happiness
  • And more!

I’d probably think it was a cheesy infomercial or self-help book.  Yet it’s true.  Blogging every single day has done all of this for me.

It’s not some magical cure all.  It’s actually pretty straightforward and anyone who’s done anything every single day will have an idea why.  If you run every single day no matter how inconvenient, you’ll understand.  Or meditate, or read, or whatever else.  The act of committing to something every day with no breaks or wiggle room is scary in itself.  I heard of a guy who was challenged to run 10 yards every single day and he laughed and said that’s crazy because it’s too easy.  But he wouldn’t commit to run a mile a day because that was unrealistic.  10 yards wasn’t too easy.  It was scary because it was so doable.  There are no situations in which you can’t find a way to run 10 yards.  No excuses.  That kind of consistent finality is scary to face.

Once you commit it’s on.  Every day is a battle.  Ups and downs and everything in between must be overcome.  It’s a wild ride.  The thing I especially like about making blogging the daily commitment is that it’s public.  Once you announce you’ll do it every day you can’t hide.  Everyone can see whether you have.  I also like that blogging is a creative act, and the more you turn creativity into a discipline the more creative you’ll become.

It’s hard to overstate the ups and downs you’ll experience.  Recently I poured my heart into what I thought was a very inspired and very good blog post.  I spent an hour typing it into my phone on an airplane.  I leaned back in my chair tired, content, and excited.  I had a few ideas and a few turns of phrase I really liked.  Then the draft disappeared.  It was gone for good.  I couldn’t recapture that moment of inspiration or those turns of phrase.  And yet I still had to write a post that day.  It took everything I had to make myself get back on the horse and compose and entirely new post, knowing what I had previously written was gone.  The make-up post I wrote wasn’t that good, but I’ve never felt more accomplished than when I finished it.  I know, it sounds dramatic.  But in the moment it felt that way.

You learn a lot about yourself blogging every day.  You learn to pull a lot of ideas and insights to the fore that were floating in your subconscious.  You learn to see the world differently and get better at expressing what you find.  Most of all you learn to take yourself more lightly and not fear failure.  Your ideas are now public and open to scrutiny, which means they could be ridiculed.  Worse yet, they could be (and often are) ignored.  Both prospects are equally frightening.  Getting used to it and being unafraid to churn out posts changes your whole approach to the world.

I won’t go on (though I could) about the benefits of daily blogging.  Nor do I think everyone must do it to have a good life.  I only know how powerful it has been for me, and I think anything you commit to do daily will teach you to be in the drivers seat of your life.

Why Do Kids Do What Their Parents Do?

Why do so many children follow in their parents professional footsteps?  Investigate professional sports, or entertainment, or entrepreneurship, and you’ll find a large percentage of those making a living there had parents who did the same.  I do not discount the role played by heredity.  Nor do I overlook the effects of learning from parents how to ply the craft, or connections parents can provide.  But I think there’s something else going on as well.  Kids who grow up with parents that do X do not feel the need to seek permission to pursue a career in X.

If I asked you in all seriousness if you want to change life direction and become a rock star you’d probably laugh.  You’d laugh because you see rock star as something outside the realm of possibility for you.  Even if you have some musical interest or talent, you’d feel sheepish about attempting to reach rock star status.  You’d probably want to hone your skills in private for a very long time before unveiling them to the world, and even then rock star might seem too distant a target.

But I bet your response would be different if you had a parent who was a rock star.  Even if you’d not spent much time on music or asked your rock star parent for advice and connections, you’d view a music career as a real possibility.  The things you’ve seen people close to you do are possible.  They’re matter of fact things that don’t seem all that lofty.  Kids who grow up around actors aren’t embarrassed to make head-shots or go to auditions.  Kids with athlete parents aren’t intimidated by tryouts or the idea of being team captain.  I suspect it’s more for this reason than pure nepotism that even mediocre performers often have careers in entertainment when they’re related to a star.  They simply don’t fear the things required to step out and give it a try.

Most kids feel the need to ask for permission pursue big dreams.  They think they need to be invited or discovered.  If you’ve never seen someone who does it except on TV it seems far-off.  If you’re familiar with it, it automatically becomes a part of your set of options and you need no one’s permission to pursue it.

The first hurdle to doing anything is knowing you don’t need permission.  Bring your heroes down to earth.  Remember they’re just fallible, searching people.  Imagine what their kids must think of them, as kids always see the weak and mundane side as well as the great.  Expand your set of options beyond that which is familiar; or rather, make all options familiar.

Success as a Discipline

I like to view success as a skill not unlike any other.  I think it can be learned.  If you apply discipline and form good habits you will get better at success.

Perhaps there are elements of heredity or good fortune that might bring a person success or the appearance of it.  But those are less common and tend to be fleeting.  In fact, if you have not learned success as a discipline, even good fortune could end up making you worse off in the long run.

Success is the ability to imagine a desired end and achieve it.  Both components – the imagining and the achieving – are important.  The thing that connects them and ties ideas to outcomes is a willingness to pay the price.  Many people imagine lovely things and get upset or confused when they don’t get them.  But few are realistic about whether or not they actually are willing to do what it takes.

How can you learn the discipline of success?  You learn by doing.  First imagine something you want.  Then think through what it will take to achieve it.  Decide if you’re willing to pay the price and if so, fully commit.  Now begin taking the steps and don’t stop until you achieve it.  That’s it.  Each time you accomplish what you set out to you begin to form a habit and become accustomed to the process of success.  For this reason, as with any other skill, start small.  Think of modest goals and ends that aren’t too far off.  Practice achieving them and you not only get whatever the end was, but you learn how to succeed.  Do it over and over.  Once you’ve mastered success as a discipline, you can apply it to more grand and ambitious ends.

I don’t mean to imply that you can succeed every time you try anything.  Skills don’t work that way.  You can’t master piano playing such that you’ll never make a mistake and you can play anything perfectly the first time.  But we all recognize piano playing as a skill that can be cultivated through discipline and the formation of habits.  Success is the same.  You can teach yourself how to imagine a goal, commit to paying the price, and reach it.

On Being Truthful

What if you resolved to be fully truthful?  I don’t mean merely not telling lies, but not hiding truths either.  Most of us immediately assume this would be hurtful to others.  All those hard truths we sometimes hold back or sugar coat would be out in the open.  It’s revealing of our thought process that the assumption is that being fully truthful would mean sharing more bad news or negative opinion than we currently do.  I think it’s also false.

If you take a few moments to really absorb the full truth of your situation you begin to realize that the harsher truths you refrain from voicing are just the first level.  That house is ugly.  I don’t like working with my boss.  My kids annoy me.  Get past these facts and feelings you normally mask and you’ll find a larger, deeper set of truths you equally overlook.  The sunshine is beautiful, and it’s there every day.  I never have to worry about it.  I’ve never gone hungry.  My kids make me laugh.  This coffee tastes wonderful.

I’m not suggesting you actually go about your day openly sharing every truth about your reality.  I’m not even suggesting the beautiful is always greater than the ugly (though I strongly suspect it is).  I only wish to challenge the notion that being fully truthful means sharing more bad news than most.  Truth is simply the full nature of our universe, and for everyone and everything that subtly bothers you there’s probably someone or something else that surreptitiously delights you.

Whether you share it or not, explore the full truth around you.  Don’t stop at the easy, negative truths.  If you give it to yourself straight you might actually be more, not less optimistic.

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