Monday, May 4, 2015

When You Should Give Up Hope

I love this one because it's so counter-intuitive.  You should never give up hope, right?  Keep your eye on the finish line.  Focus on the results.  These are all ways of helping us get to our goals.  But do they apply all the time?  Do they even apply most of the time?  What if holding onto hope is what’s keeping you from reaching your potential?

Holding Out for Others or Focusing on the Finish Line Constrains Your Passion

I found myself in such a scenario while serving a 2-year proselytizing mission for my church.  I remember a fellow missionary ask how long I’d been out, and not wanting to sound like I was too green, I responded: “About a year.”  And he replied: “You’re at the darkest point of your mission.”  What a strange thing to say, I thought.   Then he said, “Because you can’t see the light at either end of the tunnel.”

It was true.

It was hard to remember not being a missionary.  It was hard to think of ever going home more than a year from now.  It was a really depressing thought.  After I had a moment to consider my bleak situation, I started to realize it was ok to not think about home.  In fact, thinking about home was about the least productive thing I could do.  I needed to think about what I was doing and why I was there.  Giving up hope gave me a chance to let go of my former self and life, and make something good out of where I was.  Or even better, become passionate about my current pursuit.  I had a lot of time to work on that.

What about smaller tasks?  A while back, my daughters had made an enormous knot out of about 15 metal necklaces.  It was a huge frustrating blight on our living room couch that I was not in a mood to tackle.  It was about the last thing on my list of important tasks to do around the house.  My mother came to stay that week, and one day she sat in the middle of the couch with the kids, and was watching cartoons or something, and she picked up the blob of twisted metal.  I was a bit horrified, and about to spurt out some apology for my horrible daughters and their disregard for their things, but instead I just watched as she put on her glasses, and started tugging at it here and there, and turning it over.  A few “My Little Pony” episodes later, she was untying the last two strands, and laying out the necklaces over her leg, and seemed delighted with her handiwork.  I’ll admit, I was astonished by her attitude.  What could have possessed her to have the patience to squander her productivity on such a meaningless task?  Then I realized I had been sitting on the chair next to them, and had less to show for my time.

The time spent really wasn’t the root of the issue.  And I’m not trying to advocate that we spend every waking moment working tasks rather than getting lost in a cartoon with your kids.  Or getting lost in a cartoon alone, I won’t judge.

You Have More Control than You Think (Which Can Be Scary)

So had she given up hope of finishing untying the necklaces?  No – It’s that she had no expectation going into it.  She just decided that it would be fun to play with them for a little while, and before she noticed it, she was finished.  That’s a powerful insight – at least in my opinion.  And when I stand in front of a gulf of despair over a task I’m dreading, I sometimes imagine my mom dancing a little bit in her seat as she plays with a knot of necklaces, and I think maybe I can change my perspective a little.  Maybe I can just toy with the task a little, and pretend like I’m having fun, or let myself see it as fun to be lost in a pursuit.  Suddenly the destination is less important.  Hope of completion becomes less important, and even less motivating.  One of the greatest motivators of all is joy.  And when you’re looking toward finishing, you’re telling your brain that this activity is the opposite of joy.

And that’s fine for a task that you only have to do once.  But the next time you have to try and face that task, alarm bells are going to go off in your brain screaming “RUN AWAY!”

Most of us feel that way about a good percentage of the activities that we do every day.  Do you dread waking up in the morning, or facing the day?  Do you dread going to work?  Do you dread tidying the house, or driving?  Maybe you have a list of things you dread each day, and if you think about each one of them, I’ll bet you can think of at least one time where that experience was awful.  Or at least that’s the way you remember it.  But was it really awful?  I mean objectively, scientifically, how many things can we really put into an awful category?  Is driving awful to a teenager who’s been cooped up in the house, and is craving their freedom?  Is working awful for everyone?  Think of your job – are there any people in the world who could enjoy your job?  Is there anything redemptive about it?  What about cleaning: is the act of organizing the random assortment of items scattered around that inherently unpleasant?  What about sorting, and categorizing, or finding homes for the things.  Have you ever stopped to think that could be something rewarding?  Do you know people who crave organizing?  Have you ever asked them what they like about it?  I guarantee if you’re open minded, and let yourself see it through their eyes, you’ll catch the vision pretty quickly.  But it’s hard when your own experiences make you feel averse to the activity.

The more scientists explore the brain, and our conscious mind, the more amazed they are by the astounding elasticity of the brain and its ability to adjust to changing circumstance.  Many journals see correlation between the way our brains may have evolved and the brains elasticity.  They’re beginning to see some evolutionary reasons why the brain is so capable of allowing you to generate your assumptions about your circumstance, rather than have more of those instincts hard-wired in our DNA.  How else can your brain know what kind of circumstance you’ll find yourself in the future and adjust for it, if not depending on the conscious mind?  How can it prepare and thrive in ever-changing environments, and ever-evolving threats?  Possibly by relying on the new pre-frontal cortex (where our conscious mind seems to reside) to assess the threats and store them using a kind of mental ‘muscle-memory’ to quickly tag those threats, and help you avoid them without having to re-evaluate every time.  While this is great when the threats are obvious - like a rustling in a bush somewhere – it becomes more challenging when the threats in your life are in fact, your life.  How is your brain supposed to understand that you just hate your job, but it’s what actually provides for your weeknight and weekend well-being.  It’s not really evolved for that.  But you are!  Your conscious is perfectly evolved to make this distinction, but you’re probably not taking advantage of that entire evolutionary horsepower.  Let me show you how.

How to Harness Your Pre-Frontal Cortex Power Over Your Mental Muscle-Memory

1: Challenge Your Assumptions

First you need to challenge your assumptions.  Is your job horrible, or are you just lazy?  Is your circumstance detestable, or are you just making third-world lions out of first-world problems?  In the scope of history, is your life really so bad?  Think of the middle ages – what would a serf in the 1100s trade for your life?   How would a Peruvian field-worker who has to walk 10 miles through the jungle feel about your morning commute?  How would a hotel maid feel about trading her 300 hotel rooms for your one unkempt kitchen?  If you can imagine a worse situation than yours, you’re getting close.

2: Find the Hidden Virtue

Next you need to find the hidden virtue, and focus on it.  What do you like about your job?  For a month, try and act like an observer, and jot down the things you like about what you do.  Remind yourself why you like it.  I started wondering about why exactly I like what I do a while back because I wanted to use that information to help me understand my talents and passions in the hopes that I could spend more time doing the things I love.  I would catch myself suppressing a laugh once in a while, and I knew that was a good indication that I was getting a dose of joy at that moment.  You know the feeling when you get an ‘aha’ moment about something, or you’re so pleasantly surprised by something that you have a little laugh out of pure astonishment?  For me it came when we solved an unsolvable problem, or answered and unanswerable question.  Or we found the expert who could answer our question.  But it was even more gratifying when against all odds, I was able to get to the solution on my own, or while talking through it with others on my team.   It’s that feeling of conquering, or blazing a trail that had never been taken, and finding success.  I’m sure you have moments that make you feel that way.  And most likely they are very brief, and if you’re not paying attention, they’ll pass you by.  But if you’re watching, you’ll see patterns of hidden virtue, even in the most grueling pursuits.  If you can see those diamonds in the rough, you’ll be in a better position to start going after them.

3: Change Your Script

Once you are aware of the gems in your life, you need to change your script.  You need to rewrite your inner monologue.  You know that little voice inside your head that tells you everything is hopeless, and that you hate everything?  You need to start arguing with it!  And start calling it out on its stupidity.  You’re the smart one, and you’re the only one who can make that voice see the good in things when all it talks about is bleakness.  Even if you’re not sure you believe it yourself, start telling it what you want to believe.  That you have power over the world – That you are grateful for everything you have – That you are the captain of your destiny!  Everything that you think you hate, start telling yourself the opposite – that you love those things!  And if you keep it up long enough, something amazing will happen.  That inner voice will start to affirm your convictions, and start to get excited with you about the potential you start seeing around you.  Even when you start to give up hope, your inner voice will cheer you on.  You’ll start to stand out in a crowd, and people will ask you why you’re so happy all the time.  And you’ll forget why you were ever unhappy.  Your greatest weaknesses will become your strengths, and your greatest challenges will become your greatest triumphs.  And when you set out on a journey, you’ll no longer hope for the end, you’ll have a passion about those tiny moments along the way that you conquered, and before you know it you’ll look back and wish you were still in the thick of it!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why We Hate Conflict and Why We Sweat the Small Stuff

What is the biggest source of conflict in your life right now?  What is the worst that could happen as a result of that conflict?  Is there a chance you will lose face?  Lose Friends? Lose money? Lose a job?  Is there any real chance that this conflict could ever result in the death of someone close to you?  Is there a chance it could result in your own death?

Getting Perspective around our Conflict

Most of us live in a world where life and death is not really an issue anymore.  I mean death still happens, but we don't really have to deal with having to starve to death or be killed, or lose large swaths of the population to plagues, or violance.  Right?  In the history of human beings our conflicts are pretty... well... insignificant.  Not to say they are not stressful.  In fact by most measurements, we are living with more stress than ever.  Am I the only one who thinks there is something wrong with that?  How could we be more stressed when our lives are so much safer?  What is stress anyway?  Why do our doctors often advise so many of us to limit our stress?  Stress has been linked to various diseases, even possibly a cause of a shorter life.

But regardless of how much easier our lives may be, we're confronted with conflict all the time, and are literally dying as a result of our stress.  Why do we dislike conflict?  Is that a modern invention also?  Have we learned to be helpless?

Facing Down a Bear

There is a scene in the Disney animated film Brave that puts our current conflicts in proper perspective for me.  I was thinking about doing hard things, and how we have such an aversion to doing hard things, and scary things, and facing conflict.  And I watched this scene, and I was blown away by the implication.

In this scene, the king finds out there is a bear in the castle.  But does he respond with fear?  No.  He screams "I knew it!  YES!"  Why is he excited that there is a bear loose in his castle and threatening his family?

The reason he's not worried about the bear is because he thinks it's the bear that he's been tracking for years; the same bear that took his leg.  He is eager for an opportunity to confront this bear, and defeat him once and for all.

What's interesting for me is the fact that there are people who enjoy even the most awful tasks. Some people like getting in arguments and confrontations, some people like organizing, and meetings, and details. So my question is: is that because they just like those things, or is it because they have found a way to look at that task in a way that makes it more appealing?

And this got me thinking...  If he can be eager to face this bear, and even fight it hand to hand, then is it possible for me to want to face my own fears?  Well you might say, but this is just fiction, right?

Getting Pumped

Alright, well here's another example.  How many of us dread exercise?  How many of us hate going to the gym?  And even if you don't mind it too much, what is the worst part of the experience for most people?  There might be a lot of things, but I'll bet if we did a poll, we'd find that most people dislike the pain associated with working out, right?  Well is it possible to look forward to that pain, even?  Arnold Schwarzenegger describes this pain as "the pump" and in his book "Total Recall" he describes that pain: "The most satisfying feel you can get in the gym is the "pump". It's as satisfying to me as..." "... y'know? As having sex."

So I want you to consider a thought with me: are the things that you "like" and "dislike" or even "hate" are those things just "who you are"?  Or is it possible that your feelings about those things are based on your opinions that you decided in the past?  Is it possible to enjoy things that you currently hate?

I think most of us can answer yes to that one, for sure.  Here are some of my examples: I used to hate broccoli, asparagus, dark chocolate, yard work, dishes, service, being told I'm wrong.  All of these things I learned to like over time.  Mostly because I kept trying them, or cooking them differently.   Arnold also has some wisdom on this one:

"The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That's what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they'll go through the pain no matter what happens"

You Have Power Over Your Own Perspective

There is also something to be said for understanding why other people enjoy the tasks that you hate, because I think that if you can see it from their perspective, then perhaps you can learn to enjoy it, like they do! Then rather than suffering through things you hate, suddenly it's about learning to enjoy, or even love aspects that you would have detested before. I'm sure you can think of something that you hated, but then learned to love?  How did that happen for you?  Did you find something about it that you liked?  Did you want to like it, and then like a seed let that desire work within you?

Warren Buffet often says that he likes to throw out one idea or assumption that he has each year.  I think that once you understand that all of this like/dislike stuff is just an opinion of your own making that you can also unmake, then you'll start to see the power you have over your experiences.  And pretty soon you'll be able to find joy in anything.

I'll end with a quote from C.S. Lewis.  Although it has a religious connotation, I want you to think of it in the context of your power over your own perspective.  He said:

C.S. Lewis

“At the end of things, The Blessed will say, “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.” And the lost will say, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”

― C.S. Lewis

Monday, April 20, 2015

Avoidance: You're Doing It Wrong

Why are you on Facebook all day?  Is it because you've developed a Pavlovian response to the push notifications, or emails?  Or is it because it has become your escape from the parts of your life that you're just not up for dealing with right now?  Have you been meaning to call your mother, or Mother in-law, but can't seem to work up the will to dial the number?  Do you have a great idea at work that you've been meaning to implement, but there's always something else you have to deal with first?  Are you an Avoider?  I am.  Are you doing things you don't want to do because you're avoiding something else?  Chances are you're an Avoider too.  It's ok to admit it.  I am an Avoider.  But chances are that I'm a better Avoider than you.


I love my work, it's very mental-heavy.  It requires a lot of "left-brain" thinking like analyzing and solving complex problems, and answering hard questions.  By the end of the day I'm exhausted even though I've been sitting all day.  And throughout the day I really need breaks, or else I get fried early on, and am not very useful.  When I used to work in the office (I work from home now), and I was getting fried, I'd walk over to my buddy's desk, and talk him into running to the gas station for taquitos, and a gatorade, or take a walk around the building or block.  Now that I work from home, escaping from the office is not so simple.

Or is it?  Not too long ago I started grabbing my guitar during those 'nearly fried' moments, and I found that it was a good escape.  But what intrigued me was that I was really effective with music, it was like the inspiration was just flowing, and I wished I could keep going.  Sure enough it was the same thing almost every day.  And it started getting me thinking.  Why is music easy when I'm mentally frazzled?

About Flow

When do you find the most creative inspiration seems to come?  Is it when you're driving, or in the shower?  Or when you're running, or playing sports?  I'm not a neuroscientist and I'm probably oversimplifying, but I like to think of these as activities where your motor skills are occupying your conscious, or sometimes referred to as 'left brain.'  So if your 'left brain' is spent, or occupied, then your 'right brain' or the creative side can more easily come to the forefront.

Another element of this is what experts are calling flow.  This is when you are so lost in an activity that you lose track of time.  And according to the experts flow is really important for happiness.  Or at least people who are able to achieve flow often are also found to have much higher reported happiness.  Here is a TED talk on the subject

Most of us achieve flow more often than we think, but don't usually sustain it for long, and don't usually find flow in productive activities.  Let me give you a few examples.  Have you ever walked into a room, and forgot why you were there?  Or have you ever driven somewhere, and can't remember the drive?  Or binge-watched an entire season of your favorite show, and realized it's like 3 or 4 am?  These are flow moments, but they're not terribly useful if they're too short, or are not engaged in useful or productive activities.

Getting Primed for Flow

What if you are primed for flow all the time, but you're just doing the wrong activities in those key moments?  Here's a funny example:  When my kids come home from school, and plop in front of the tv, I like to wait about an hour or so, and grab the remote, and pause, or turn off the tv.  Have you ever done this?  If you have, you know what happens, and it's about the funniest thing you have ever seen.  They go completely crazy!  They start screaming, and jumping up and down.  You would think that I had just cut off a limb.  Why do they go so crazy?  I think it's because they are deep in flow.

Think about it.  They have been spending all day trying to concentrate, and listen and behave, and suddenly, they are free to just get engrossed in whatever mind-numbing program they can find.  They are escaping from the stress of their lives.  This is where I think we learn our escapist media habits.

So what is there to do?  I'm an avoidance addict, and I know I need to change.  But what can I do about it?  One way to harness your own avoidance is to identify what you are avoiding.  Is it a mental activity?  Does it require mental effort?  Is it a creative activity?  Does it require creative inspiration?  Is it a brainless activity, and you can't bear the boredom (cleaning the house for example).

Ebb and Flow

Chances are you are spending much of your time on one of these areas, and not much time in the others.  The trick is finding which kind of effort you are avoiding, and find productive activities that compliment your avoidance appetite, and do those activities when you are avoiding something else.  I call this Ebb and Flow.

So let's say you are trying to write a book, and you find yourself avoiding sitting down to it.  Writing is a fairly creative activity, so if you're avoiding it, you're going to be most effective in an analytical activity.  Think of some analytical activity that you haven't been able to find time for like doing your budget, or organizing the garage.  Or you might want to focus on some longer term activities like learning a language, or teaching yourself a new skill.  Then after you start getting tired of budgeting, try sitting back down to your computer, and pretend you are avoiding your budget, and you'll be amazed at the miraculous creative productivity that results.  Then alternate between these two kinds of activities every 90 mins or so, and you'll be amazed at how much you can get done, and also how fast the time goes.  You might want to set a timer to remind you to shift activities after 90 mins because you'll likely find yourself in flow, and not notice how tired you're getting.

And when you're tired creatively and analytically, it's a good time to do brainless activities such as cleaning, or exercise, or just playing, or spending time socially and connecting more deeply with friends and family members.  Taking a long walk to clear your head will become a valuable activity at these times, also.

Give yourself Permission to be a more Effective Avoider

If you're being productive in another activity, you have to tell yourself that it's ok to avoid temporarily, and you'll get back to it when you've given yourself a chance to "rest" from that type of activity.  This is very important.  You have to give yourself permission to alternate activities, and tell yourself that you'll be more productive long-term.  If you're still feeling guilty, or worrying about the other activity, you'll never be able to achieve flow.  If you find your worrying getting in the way of your flow, you may be avoiding something that you shouldn't really be avoiding.  It's important to listen to your intuitions.  If you try to ignore it a few times, and it won't go away you might want to go back to it and make some progress to help yourself feel better about your avoidance.  And I hope this goes without saying, but when things are critical, or when lives are at risk is not the time to implement affective avoidance!

Seeing the Possibilities

Hopefully by now you are starting to see the possibilities in your own life.  And you're probably seeing how you are spending all of your time stressing and worrying about activities that are all the same type.  My wife stays at home with the kids, and especially when they were younger that meant she was spending literally weeks doing nothing but brainless activities.  Most of the time all she wanted to do was escape from the house, and watch an intense movie, or have some "adult conversation."  And I was fried from spending all day doing analytical work, so I wasn't much good to her.  And all I wanted to do was sit brainless, or talk creatively about what if we changed this about our house.  It was a source of frustration for both of us.  And as you spend a lot of time being brainless, your brain muscles start to atrophy, and get weak.  Now she's trying to go back to school, and to say it's not easy is a major understatement.

So next time you find yourself avoiding, remember these tips:
  • What type of activity are you avoiding?
  • Identify some tasks in another type of activity that are important to you so you can still be productive while you're avoiding.
  • Give yourself permission for effective avoidance
  • Alternate activity types every 90 mins or so to stay "fresh" all day

Monday, April 13, 2015

All Your Problems Are Your Fault. But That's A Good Thing?

We all know people who complain about everything going wrong in their life, right?  And as they go on and on, it's all you can do to nod, and bite your tongue because you know it's their own dang fault that bad things happen to them!  Either they are always dating losers (or criminals!), or they are always jumping into things without doing their homework, or they have horrible work habits, or they're unreliable, or lazy, or downright dishonest.  And they wonder why their life is always a mess.

What if I'm that person?

I want you to imagine for a moment: "What if I'm that person?"

And I know it kills you to even think this way (it does me), but bear with me for a moment, and I'll show you how you can turn it around.  I like to think of it as the reverse Costanza, and it's super easy to do.  And nobody wants to be that guy/girl.  Don't be that guy/girl.  Here's how.

So if you can, think for a moment that you're the source of all of your own problems, and maybe there's someone you're complaining to that is secretly rolling their eyes.  And it's because what's obvious to everyone else is really hard for you (for any of us, really) to see for yourself, especially for those of us who are great at rationalizing our behavior and finding scapegoats for our own vulnerabilities (that's me!).

What if it's my Fault?

Think back to the worst thing that has happened to you recently.  Was it your fault that it happened?  Of course not, right?  Ok, let me try another angle.  Is there honestly anything that you could have done to prevent it?  What if you could have had some knowledge of the future, and knew that this would be the result.  Would you have done anything different?  If so, what?

Now think of what would have happened had you acted differently.  Would the result have changed?  How exactly would it have changed?  Probably would have been better, right?  But...  Is that the best possible outcome?  I'm going to guess it's probably a much better outcome, but I want to tell you a way to be sure you have the best possible outcome every time.  And best of all that's the easy part.

Reverse Costanza

Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld where George was frustrated with his life, and he decided he was going to do the opposite of what he had always done.  So instead of being embarrassed, and resigned, he walked right up to the girl in the coffee shop, and told her all of the things wrong with himself (usually he would try and hide them for as long as possible).

Watch the clip here

Now I'm not advocating that you do the opposite of everything that you have ever done.  But do you put your own instincts to the test?  I started doing this about 10 years ago, and I remember I told my boss about it, and he thought I was crazy.  But he was gone in less than a year.

Here's what I do:  I think about what I would normally do - what is my first instinct.  Then I imagine what will happen - what will be the outcome.  And then - I imagine what would be the exact opposite?  Would the results be better or worse?  And when I started doing this, I found that 9 times out of 10, the opposite was actually better.  And the 10th time, there was something good I could take from the opposite, and incorporate it into my plan, and get a better result than I would have on instinct alone.

So here's an example:  I am really frustrated with my boss and job, and I want to go in and quit.  But I'm not really going to.  Most likely I'm going to wait for him to come and ask for something impossible, and I'll just take my frustration out on him then, and see where it goes.  Probably with me getting out some frustration, but also getting yelled at for just trying to find an excuse not to do my job.  So what's the opposite?  That's not exactly easy.  Maybe instead of waiting for him to come to me, I go into him, and tell him what I'm feeling frustrated about.  Instead of not having a plan for what I'm going to say, maybe I make a list of the specific things that are causing me grief.  Wow.  That's probably a better outcome, right?

Just try it, and let me know if you think of a better approach because you consider the opposite of your instincts.

And maybe if I'm feeling really ambitious, I'll use that momentum to make my plan even better.  What if going in right now is not a good time for him?  What if he just got off a stressful conference call, and he's the one who needs to relieve some stress?  Maybe I bide my time a little bit, and wait for an opportune moment?

Do you see how just taking a moment to consider the outcomes is a huge improvement over going off the cuff?

Exerting Your Best Effort

Here's one of my favorite quotes on this subject, and it comes from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  In this scene, Harry was given a crucial task to retrieve a memory from the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Horace Slughorn.  Dumbledore asks about the status of this important task, and Harry is ashamed to report that he has not completed the task.  How Professor Dumbledore responds is a great way to illustrate this idea.  He doesn't really rebuke Harry, but rather emphasizes Harry's unique ability to succeed.

“I see,” said Dumbledore eventually, peering at Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles and giving Harry the usual sensation that he was being X-rayed. “And you feel that you have exerted your very best efforts in this matter, do you? That you have exercised all of your considerable ingenuity? That you have left no depth of cunning unplumbed in your quest to retrieve the memory?”

I like to think of this when I feel I have not achieved the outcome I was hoping for.  Can I honestly say I have exerted my best efforts in the matter?  Have I exercised all my considerable ingenuity?  Have I left no depth of cunning unplumbed in my quest?

This is usually where I start to see the vast plain of possibility open up before me, and so many ways I didn't consider accomplishing the task appear.

Inagine the Future and Look Back Now

But is it possible to visualize yourself and your likely failure in advance?  So you can hold yourself accountable before you even set out on a task?  That way you will see the plain of possibilities before you proceed.  I am going to challenge you to believe that it is possible, and if you will try and allow yourself to believe that you can look back figuratively, you'll free yourself from regretfully looking back literally, and wishing you could have done better.  Because you 'could' have, you just didn't.  There's no better time than now to start practicing, and exercising all of your considerable ingenuity, and plumbing your depth of cunning, and your problems will suddenly seem to have less power over you.

So why is it a good thing that all your problems are your fault?  Because if you're the cause, you can do something about it.  Good luck! Let me know how it goes!