You & Improved

7 Life Lessons My Dad Taught Me While Working at a Lumberyard

nice-bike

I recently shared seven things I learned watching my dad work for nearly four decades at a lumberyard in Illinois. I’m back with seven more, because my dad is quite a guy and he taught me quite a few things. Interestingly, most of these lessons came not from what he said, but from watching what he actually did.

1) Own what brings you joy, regardless of what anyone else thinks. For as long as I can remember, my dad has owned a little red scooter that featured almost as much horsepower as a single three-legged horse. He rode that thing to work every single day, drizzle, snow, or apocalypse. He bragged about the gas mileage he got, even though he looked impressively uncool. But you know what? He didn’t care. He loved that sweet ride, and he loved the savings it brought our family. No amount of ridicule was going to change that. Which is actually pretty cool after all.

2) You don’t have to be the boss to be a leader. My Dad didn’t own the lumberyard and he wasn’t the top manager, but every last person there respected him. He was the go-to guy for a lot of people who needed advice or something to get done. It’s easy to be frustrated by the lack of power you may have in your job, but you don’t have to have a title to make a difference.

3) If you want to remember something later, write it down now. My dad carries a little yellow notepad around like I carry my smartphone. (Except he never needs to worry about recharging anything.) His famous notebooks were crammed with to-do lists, details for projects he was working on, lessons he learned, quotes that struck him, and God knows what else. But if he ever needed to remember something, he knew exactly where to look.

4) Don’t be afraid to try new things. Even though my brothers and I kid my dad for his less-than-graceful handling of new technology and its corresponding terminology, I have to hand it to him. He never complained about learning something that could make his life better. Whether it was a new computer system at work, or studying to get his real estate license to bring in extra cash, he wasn’t afraid to get in there and learn something new.

5) You can make beautiful things out of stuff other people consider junk. My dad is an excellent carpenter. His home, and now the homes of his children, are filled with beautiful handcrafted furniture that were made with scraps of wood too damaged to sell. I’d say that his superpower is hiding knots on boards most people would consider subpar, except for the fact that he’s not just great at seeing hidden potential in unwanted things. As a champion for underdogs, he’s great at spotting the hidden potential in unheralded people, too.

6) Sometimes you have to do things you don’t like to take care of your family. My dad liked his job, but I know he didn’t like every minute of it. There were many frustrations, challenges, and disappointments. And yet he carried on, day after day, year after year, because that’s what he needed to do as our family’s chief breadwinner. His sacrifices remind me that my role as husband and father is way more important than my role as artist, author, or speaker.

7) Everything works out for the best. If there was ever a quote my dad did beat to death, it’s this one. It stuck with me, and not just because he repeated it more times than a two-year-old screams “Me!” It’s because he actually lived it. If we returned from vacation to find Godzilla sitting on our house and sucking on my dad’s red scooter like a jaw breaker, he would undoubtedly declare, “Everything will work out for the best.” In his world, people are the most important thing, everything else is just details, and there is a God out there who knows what he is doing regardless of whether or not we can figure it out.

I’ve only been around for forty years, but so far, I’ve never seen my dad proven wrong on this one.

Wha’s the biggest lesson your dad taught you?

My Dad Just Retired. Here Are 7 Lessons I Learned Watching His Career

lumber-log

My dad just retired from a career that most recently included an almost 40-year stint at a lumberyard in Illinois. Retirement came a bit sooner than he and my Mom originally planned, but thanks to their financial prudence, they figured out a way to make it happen. And I am so proud of them for that. This leap has been carefully measured, but it’s still a leap. I am excited for the adventures that lie ahead.

Of course, there were many highs and lows that accumulated over the years, and there are no doubt many lessons my Dad learned in that time. But it turns out that I actually learned a lot, too, just by watching him.

1) Do the right thing, even if no one is watching. My dad is the type of guy who lets a waitress know when she forgot to put his drink on the check. Not to be praised, but because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes he’d take me to the yard with him after it was closed so I could make copies of my handmade newsletters on the company copy machine. He’d always drop enough change to cover the cost in a little styrofoam cup nearby. His boss may not have been watching, but I was.

2) Treat people with respect, even if they might not deserve it. Somehow, no matter how unreasonable or nasty a customer or co-worker acted, my dad always took the high road. I’m not sure how he does it, but I know he relishes “killing people with kindness.” In that respect, I believe he’s achieved serial killer status. [Read more…]

Dream On, Artist

dream-on-mlk

I love encouraging people to think of themselves as artists, regardless of whether they can draw a convincing bowl of fruit. Because my definition of artist goes beyond people who can draw or paint or sing or sculpt or dance. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was an artist, not just because he was a great orator, but because he took a stand for something. That’s what artists do.

The problem is that examples like this are pretty intimidating. I am no Martin Luther King, Jr. And, no offense, but neither are you.

The thing we forget is that neither was he. At least not the MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. we think of today, the larger-than-life American hero who has his own holiday and over 730 streets named in his honor.

He was an imperfect man who tried to make the world a better place. Even though a million people followed him eventually, it’s important to note that those first few steps were small and quiet and mostly unnoticed.

Don’t be fooled into believing that you can’t make a dent in the universe. You can, and we need you to try. Be inspired by — but not intimidated by — the giants that came before you, because they weren’t always giants. Channel that inspiration into action.

You may not end up with your own holiday or being named a saint, but if that’s the reason you’re doing it, I can guarantee that you’ll fail.

Making the world better is not at easy as binge-watching Netflix. It takes a heckuva lot more courage than writing a check to your favorite charity. But you can start today, in your own family or community, with one small step.

Artists don’t sit on the sidelines, watching the world go by, wishing it was different.

Artists are people with big dreams who take small, deliberate, and brave actions to see those dreams come true.

Dream on.

Here Goes Something

here-goes-something

“Here goes nothing.”

It’s a phrase we often use when we’re not sure how something will turn out. In fact, since it tends to come from a sense of desperation, we use it to admit that there’s a pretty good chance of it not working.

However.

Trying things that might not work is not nothing.

It takes tremendous courage, vulnerability, and faith. Dare I say it’s the most important thing we can ever do.

Doing things that we are sure will work is safe and comfortable. Chasing guarantees is one way to go about our days, but if this is all we ever do, we will have wasted our life. This is not why we were born.

When you try something that might not work, it’s true: it might not. But in the end, many other good things will have come of it. At the very least, you will have learned something and your comfort zone will have inched a little larger.

And that’s definitely not nothing.

Tinker. Experiment. Play. Try things that might not work. And when you cast off into the unknown, say to yourself, “Here goes something!!!”

Time for a Tinker Project

tinker-project-banner

I turn 40 this year. I’ve accomplished a lot in forty years, but I’ve ended too many of the past few regretful that I didn’t make more art.

Part of the reason is because it feels too self-indulgent; to spend more time on something I enjoy so much can’t possibly be considered “work,” right? Meanwhile, because we never experienced much financial success in our early efforts to promote “Kim & Jason,” I’ve believed the lie that my art is not valuable enough to be a viable business option. And so I’ve distracted myself with other more “worthwhile” businessy pursuits.

When I’m making art, all seems right with the world. I’m tired of resisting my soul’s urge to make more of it. And I’m tired of coming to the end of the year wishing I’d spent more time in the studio.

That ends in 2016.

Kim and I have committed to setting aside one day a week as a Studio Day, no matter what. One whole day, at home, in the studio, making art. No email, no office tasks, no interviews, no speaking engagements, no side projects. Only art.

My goal is simple: to create 100 new pieces by the end of 2016. (I made 29 original pieces in 2015.)

I don’t have anything particular I’m hoping to achieve, but I do suspect many good and surprising things will come of this quest. It’s kind of like saying that tomorrow I’m going to leave my house and walk west for 100 days in a row. I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but it’s sure to be an adventure that ends with me (and my art) being different (and hopefully better). I have relished the idea that perhaps piece #76 is the one that will break through and change everything (whatever that means), but I have to make 75 to get there. I really don’t know. And that’s the point.

This is the manifestation of something I’ve been toying with for quite some time, something I call a Tinker Project.

A Tinker Project is a playful endeavor of any size or scope that gives you permission to experiment with something that’s been tugging at your soul, without regard to any particular outcome. It’s a chance to chase your curiosity and try something new. It’s about venturing into the unknown, just because, where the act of exploration is reward enough.

Your Tinker Project might be to take a picture every day on a morning walk, not to become a National Geographic photographer, but just to release a creative side of yourself that has been dormant for too long.

Your Tinker Project might be writing a dozen short stories about an abandoned robot, not to become a bestselling author, but because the stories can’t stay locked within you for one more minute.

Your Tinker Project might be to visit 24 new restaurants this year, not to start a career as a successful food blogger, but simply to stretch your culinary comfort zone a bit.

Your Tinker Project might be to pen one handwritten letter a week, not to increase your business, but to connect more deeply with people you care about.

Your Tinker Project might be to take a six-week ballroom dancing class, not to avoid embarrassing yourself at your wedding reception, but just because it might be fun.

A Tinker Project may produce some productive, practical and perhaps even profitable benefits, but that’s not its purpose. In adulthood, our heart often takes a back seat to our head, with it’s incessant need for reason and fear of failure or looking stupid.

A Tinker Project is about trusting that sometimes, your heart has reasons for doing things that take awhile for your head to understand.

So my Tinker Project is to make 100 new pieces of artwork in 2016. Like I said, I don’t know what will come of it, but I do know this: when I get to the end of 2016, for the first time in a long time, I won’t be wondering what would’ve happened if I actually committed myself to making more art.

If you’re interested, you can follow along on Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr. But I really hope you’ll be inspired to start a Tinker Project of your own. If so, I’d love to hear how it goes. Use the hashtag #TinkerProject to share it with the rest of us.

Let’s do this.

Create a Legendary Portfolio

legendary-portfolio

I studied illustration at Northern Illinois University. (Go Huskies!) I had some amazing teachers, but in that world, it really didn’t matter where I went to school or who I studied under.

What mattered was the portfolio.

In the art world, a portfolio is the curated collection of your absolute best work. The year after I graduated, I bought my first suit and drove up to the big city of Chicago to show my portfolio to art directors at various advertising agencies, with the hope of getting freelance work.

In less than a minute, these busy art directors would flip through my portfolio and pass judgement on what represented years of training and toil (and sometimes tears). The fantasy was that he’d be absolutely destroyed by the depth of my daring and weep tears of joy and jealousy at the level of my talent. He’d immediately call his art director friends and brag, “I’ve found him. I found…the one.”

Yeah…so that never happened. Instead, I heard things like, “Not bad, kid. We’ll call you if something comes up.”

Our lives our filled with days, and those days are filled with mostly ordinary moments. But you’re also creating a portfolio. Your greatest hits. The summary of why you were here.

What’s in your portfolio?

If someone took a few moments to flip through it, would they be blown away by your courage and curiosity and collection of unforgettable memories? Or would they say things like, “Meh” or “It’s fine” or “It kind of looks like everybody else.”

It’s easy to make safe work that looks like everybody else’s.

It’s easy to keep busy on things that make us feel productive but don’t really matter.

It’s easy to settle for making stuff we’re “supposed to” instead of creating the life we were made for.

An artist is someone busy building a legendary portfolio filled with laughter and adventures and extraordinary moments.

What’s in your portfolio?

Cooler Than You Know

act-cool

I recently had the opportunity to attend “Keynote Kamp” with 24 fellow speakers, as we met to work on improving our skills from the platform. As part of the agenda, everyone was required to do five minutes of material in front of the group, after which we received advice to help us get better.

I was intimidated by the level of talent in the room. I wondered if I belonged. Needless to say, I was nervous.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize something profound: everybody else was nervous, too.

Keep in mind, these are some of the best speakers in the entire world. Folks you’ve seen on TV, some who have been elected to the Speaker Hall of Fame, and who have wowed audiences in some of the most prestigious venues around.

And everybody was at least a little nervous. There was a small piece of each one of us that wondered if we belonged in that room.

It gave me a great sense of calm, knowing that I wasn’t the only one. I was also somewhat perplexed, wondering what some of my heroes could possibly be nervous about. But then I began to wonder…what did I have to be nervous about? How much time and energy do I waste doubting myself, wondering if I deserve to be in the room?

Thomas Edison said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

He’s right. The potential within each one of us is enormous.

But I say that we’d be astounded if we actually knew how good we already are.

Maybe the marketing messages we’ve been bombarded with over the years have convinced us that we really aren’t good enough. Maybe we haven’t received enough honest compliments. Or maybe we think the people who give us the compliments are just being nice. Or don’t know the real us.

If you’re still reading this, stop it. Stop thinking you’re not good enough.

You belong in the room. You matter. We need your contribution.

You have a special brand of amazing that no one else has. Believing it doesn’t exist dishonors the gifts you have to share. Own your brilliance, and get busy sharing it with the world.

You may not be as good as you could be, but you are already way better than you think you are.

Best Twenty Bucks I Ever Spent

sunset

Last week I was enjoying a wonderful dinner with some speaker friends. We started a table discussion about the best place you’ve ever been that you’d like to go back to. While others shared amazing stories of Tuscany, Brazil, and Ireland, I felt silly because all I could think of was the Quality Inn in Clearwater, Florida.

I’m pretty sure the year was 2007. Kim and I didn’t have kids yet, and we were in the early stages of my speaking career. We’d recently been to a speakers convention where a guy named Randy Gage talked about these exotic bungalows in Tahiti. He noted that some are perched over the water, featuring cool glass-bottomed floors, and wondered why anyone would invest the considerable expense to vacation in Tahiti and then settle for the slightly cheaper but extremely less exotic wood-bottomed accommodations a few hundred feet inland.

So as we checked into the Quality Inn, the host offered us the option of upgrading from our “Garden View” room (which savvy travelers know as code for “Ugly Roof and Air Conditioning Unit View”) to an “Ocean View” room.

“How much extra would that cost?” we asked.

“$20 a night,” was the reply.

We huddled to talk it over. Twenty bucks was a big deal for us, which should not come as surprise because as I mentioned, we were checking in to a QUALITY INN.

With Randy’s rallying cry still ringing in our ears, we threw caution to the wind and said YES.

Isn’t it funny how often it takes far less than a million dollars to feel like a millionaire? That’s definitely how we felt as we triumphantly surveyed our ocean view.

Photographers often refer to the hour before sunset as “magic hour,” because the light from the sun casts a beautiful golden hue on everything it touches. I remember lying on our bed, watching the sun sink into the Gulf. And I still remember how beautiful Kim looked. I’m so glad we snapped this selfie before selfies were a thing.

I also remember that back then, we spent a lot of our time dreaming of “making it” and looking forward to the days when we’d be checking in to much fancier hotels, you know, like Quality Inns in Tuscany.

I spent a lot of time striving, worrying, and wishing I was somewhere else. Somewhere better. But I look back now and realize what an exciting, fun time that really was.

Sometimes we get so caught up chasing the next moment that we forget to savor the one we’re in.

So yeah, I wouldn’t mind going back there, just to spend more time savoring the best twenty bucks I ever spent.

What Floats Your Boat?

float-my-boat

Sometimes I see people who I can tell have Adultitis. They are not rude or angry, as you might think. The ones who have it the worst are a little bit dead inside. I’m not talking about clinical depression or the grief that comes from losing a loved one. It’s the sadness that comes from having gone such a long time without doing the things that bring them joy.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said that he would look himself in the mirror every single day and ask himself one question: “If this were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?” He said that if he answered no to that question for too many days in a row, then it was time to make a change.

The people with the worst form of Adultitis have said no to that question for too many days in a row.

Successful entrepreneur and popular TED speaker Derek Sivers suggests that we say no to everything that isn’t a HELL YES.

I like that premise, even if it’s not always entirely possible. For instance, paying taxes is not my favorite monthly activity. Also, I am not a fan of changing diapers. Alas, I regularly have to hold my nose and do both.

That being said, I do believe that the level of success and happiness you experience in life is directly related to how much time you spend on things that light you up.

What’s one thing that just the mere thought of doing fills you with giddy, anticipatory joy?

When was the last time you did that?

If you bury the things that light you up, things can get dark fast.

I’m not saying you have to spend every waking moment doing it.

I’m not saying you have to turn it into a career.

I’m merely suggesting that you might want to spend a little more time doing the things that float your boat.

Expect to Be Amazed and You Will Be

edge-of-expectation-elephant

We have a wooded marsh with walking trails near our house. I love navigating through the oaks and maples on my morning walks. This time of year, the crunchy leaves carpet the forest floor, and the barren trees look like strong but spindly old fighters, girding up to take on one more winter. The best is when I spot a deer, and we have a little stare down before she gets spooked and runs off. I really, really love those moments.

deerInterestingly, my expectations play a big role in how often those moments arise. The times when I’m traipsing through the woods absent-mindedly, assuming it’s too late or too early for deer to be out and about, are inevitably the times when I come upon one unknowingly, startle it, and only end up catching a glimpse of its white tail as it bounds away.

The magical moments only happen when I walk with the expectation of a child; when I am quiet, alert, and filled with anticipation that I will see something amazing.

Of course, having that expectation is no guarantee that I’ll see a deer. But I’m guaranteed to miss it when I don’t.

It’s a lot like life. When you plow through each day, assuming that nothing good will happen, more times than not, you’ll be right. Amazing opportunities bound away as you walk right by them.

But if you navigate through each day mindfully, with eyes wide open, fully expecting to see amazing things…they will magically appear:

  • A stunning sunset on the ride home from work.
  • A random bumper sticker sends the sign you’ve been looking for.
  • The small unexpected gesture of love from your spouse.
  • A sliver of time to spend a few quality moments with your kid.

You’ve got to keep your eyes open for wonder. More often than not, it only shows up if you’re looking.

Or, in the immortal words of the great philosopher named Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Self-Made Successes are Exactly Like Unicorn-Riding Leprechauns

apple-catcher

I sat for a long time on this painting, trying to decide if it was finished. I often add some sort of phrase to my work, to underline the meaning. But I kept thinking it could mean different things to different people, and I didn’t want to limit them all by choosing just one.

Kim and I are initiators; we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant. This is a good trait to have when you encounter closed doors. Instead of accepting defeat, you look for another door, or a window that might have been left unlocked.

This trait, however, makes it difficult to accept gifts. By definition, a gift is not something you can buy or acquire through an act of will. Rather, it is bestowed upon us. It’s free and requires nothing in return except for us to humbly receive it with gratitude.

Although Kim and I have accomplished a lot through our own talents and persistence, the truth is that we wouldn’t be here were it not for the gifts of others.

Our friend Jenna followed us to Madison and donated years of her time to work with us — for free! — doing whatever was required to help us get this thing off the ground. Our friend Sue helped out by helping to subsidize Jenna’s living expenses that we weren’t able to cover.

We amassed $100,000 in debt in the building of this company. Much of it was used staying afloat, finding our way as a company, as we tinkered, looking for a working business model. Survival would not have been possible were it not for some generous personal loans and gifts from our friends and parents. The majority of that debt is now gone, but the gratitude to those people who showed their belief in us remains.

The successful launch of Penguins Can’t Fly was another uncomfortable moment when we had to ask for and rely on other people to help spread the word. We saw every sale, every share, every positive review, as a gift.

Kim and I have a hard time owing people. We’re happy to climb the tree ourselves and get our own damn apples, thank you very much. We also love dispensing our apples to others. It’s fun to be able to help someone along with no expectation of reciprocity.

But accepting help from someone else? That’s a different matter entirely.

It’s awkward and uncomfortable and frankly, a full-frontal assault on our pride in a society that worships self-made successes.

Which, like unicorn-riding leprechauns, don’t actually exist.

We were not made to be alone. We were created to help each other. That means being generous with our time, talents, and treasure, but it also means receiving those gifts from others in our own time of need, too.

And so for me, right now, this painting reminds me to be grateful for all the people who have helped us get to now and to stay open to the gifts we will need to accept in order to get to where we’re supposed to be.

It also reminds me that providence doesn’t usually come all at once in bunches. More often it arrives just in time, apple by apple.

Yeah, that’s what this painting means to me. I’m curious what it means to you. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

The Danger of Eating Dessert First

throw-caution

A few weeks ago, I was on a Navy base in Florida, delivering my first program for a military audience. The meeting planner was very hesitant about me encouraging them to break rules, especially since they had just spent several (long, boring, excruciating) days being briefed on new procedures, policies, and regulations.

I still told them to break rules.

Of course, I am not calling for anarchy here. I understand the need for rules, especially in the military, where if you break a rule, someone could die.

The problem is that too often, we assign the same gravity to all the rules in our life, even though most of them don’t exist and the penalty for breaking them is non-existent.

Although it may feel like it, asking your boss for a raise — or that friendly person in line ahead of you at Starbucks for a date — is not a life-or-death proposition. Who cares if they say no? You are already NOT making more money or having dinner with that person, so in effect, nothing’s changed.

Except something has changed.

You were brave. Your comfort zone grew. You cut regret off at the pass.

And that’s if they said no. How cool is it if they say…yes?

Swap sides of the bed with your partner tonight. Watch a movie from a fort in your living room. Get that purple streak in your hair. Play hooky tomorrow and do something fun. Initiate a big project at work.

Sure, it might not work out how you’d like, but that doesn’t mean nothing good will come of it.

Remember, no one is going to die from you eating dessert first.

The Art of Little Things

delight-in-the-little-things

We ordered a pizza last weekend from a local joint that we love. When the delivery driver pulled into our driveway, we were delighted to see that she had decorated her car for Halloween! Several large rubber spiders clung to her cobweb-laden Corolla, and when she came to the door, not only did she have a hot pizza, but she also pulled some fun stickers out of her pocket to give to the kids!

I guess you could say she was an over-delivery driver!

She didn’t need permission from her boss to do what she did. She didn’t even need much money. And I am certain that this wasn’t an official “initiative” handed down from above. Considering the big tip we gave her, I wondered why more delivery drivers don’t take more initiative like this.

Alas, some pizza delivery drivers are just pizza delivery drivers. But this pizza delivery driver was an artist.

No matter your station in life — but especially if you work for a big organization — it’s very easy to become paralyzed thinking, “I can’t change that,” or “I don’t have the power to do anything about this.” Although you may be right, a better strategy might be to focus instead on the things you can control. Even if they are very, very small.

You could bring in doughnuts to work for no reason.

You could start off each team meeting with a silly joke.

You could ask every customer you encounter today what their favorite movie is.

You could decorate your delivery vehicle for Halloween.

No, you may not have much pull to change the big stuff. Who cares? It’s the little things that have always made the biggest difference anyway.

You don’t need permission to be an Adultitis Fighter. You just need to decide that you will be.

How to Be a Millionaire

angel-hair

Who wants to be a millionaire?

Asking this to a group of adults is akin to asking a group of five-year-olds if they’d like to eat dessert first.

Sort of rhetorical.

Ever since I was a little kid, the idea of being a millionaire was very attractive. Richie Rich, Daddy Warbucks, and Bruce Wayne were all millionaires, and they had it made. Indeed, in our materialistic, consumer-driven culture, there seems to be a constant undercurrent that suggests if we could only figure out a way to become a millionaire — if we could just buy enough lottery tickets or put in enough time — life would be better and we’d be happier.

We are conditioned to think we never have enough. And so we spend a lot of time striving…but do we really ever stop to consider what all the striving is for?

Do you really need to have a million bucks to feel like a millionaire?

In thinking about the actual monetary value of the things that would make me feel like a millionaire, a list like this comes to mind:

  • The ability to order whatever I want off the menu without having to look at the price.
  • A kitchen table that always features a vase of fresh flowers.
  • Flying first class.
  • The freedom to homeschool my kids and go on adventures together.
  • Spending two weeks of every February in Florida with my family.
  • A hot tub where Kim and I can chat about our day and dream about our future.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. I’ve achieved some of these things, and am still looking forward to others. Here’s the thing: Were I to add up the total cost of everything on it, the sum would be far LESS than a million dollars.

In other words, I don’t need to BE a millionaire to FEEL like one.

What’s more is that if I were to include the things in my life that are truly priceless — my faith, my marriage, my friendships, and the good health of myself and my family — I feel embarrassingly rich.

Granted, you may have more expensive tastes than me, and would love to bathe in caviar every day. If so, I’m afraid this little exercise has been proven useless. But I’m willing to bet there are many people who need far less than a million dollars to live a life that makes them feel like a millionaire.

Maybe, just maybe, if we stopped to calculate how much money it would take for us to feel like a millionaire, we’d be shocked by how little it would be.

And then, instead of mindlessly striving for some unknown and unreachable ideal, we could spend our striving on something that mattered more.

Just my two cents.

You’re Better Than Einstein

must-be-nice-new

I read the other day that Albert Einstein didn’t know how to swim.

And he was a terrible sailor, capsizing his boat so often that locals regularly had to tow him back to shore.

It made me feel good to read that.

I have never sailed, but I do know how to swim. It’s nice to know that I can do something Einstein couldn’t, and that he actually stunk at things.

I spend too much time worrying that I’m not enough. I’m not outgoing enough, smart enough, creative enough, disciplined enough, thin enough, or faithful enough to accomplish my biggest dreams. I regularly undervalue my gifts, and overemphasize my shortcomings.

Maybe you do the same thing.

We regularly compare ourselves to people like Einstein, who is regularly lauded as a genius, and cast ourselves in lesser roles in this grand production called Life.

Interestingly, our definition of genius has changed over the years. In the 14th century, a genius referred to a guardian spirit, and a very talented person was said to “have” a genius, because his or her gift was thought to be the result of some supernatural help.

Somewhere along the line, we evolved from the idea of having a genius to being one, which brings with it the connotation of being superhuman and great at everything.

But no one is great at everything. No one is even great at most things. We were designed to depend on one another. A single person cannot make a baby by him or herself. Babies can’t feed themselves or change their own diapers. And diaper companies can’t make money without customers.

Despite finding himself regularly waterlogged, Einstein apparently didn’t think it was important enough to invest any time in becoming a better sailor or learning how to swim. I’m guessing he didn’t waste any time comparing himself to Johnny Weissmuller.

If you haven’t heard of Johnny Weissmuller, he lived at the same time as Einstein, and he sure could swim. He won three gold medals, at the summer Olympics in 1924, three years after Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Weissmuller also became the best known actor to play Tarzan in films of the 1930s and 1940s. (His character’s distinctive Tarzan yell is still often used in films.) He had a different kind of genius than old Albert. Weissmuller’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention whether or not Johnny was any good at math or science.

But he was way better than Einstein at swimming.

You’re better than Einstein at something, too. We all have a genius. We’re all good at something. A few things, probably. That’s our genius, and that’s what we need to share with the world.

Develop and share your genius. Disregard the things you stink at.

Even Einstein wasn’t an Einstein at everything.

The Magic of Unscheduling

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My dad used to build houses for a living. He believes that one of the reasons for the prevalence of mold these days is because homes are being built so air-tight and energy efficient, there’s no room for the house to “breathe.”

Our lives can be similar. They are often scheduled down to the minute, one day to the next, with no room to breathe. As a result, spontaneity is cut out and life gets stale and moldy.

As evidence of its sinister nature, Adultitis likes to cast spontaneity as the enemy, a disruptive force that wreaks havoc on our perfectly manicured plans. But in truth, spontaneity is the catalyst for magic in our lives. Spontaneity opens the door for wonder to walk through. It invites the Universe to surprise and delight us in ways we never could have predicted.

Indeed, our most treasured memories — the ones we reminisce about with loved ones — regularly come out of an unplanned moment of spontaneity:

The romantic indoor picnic by candlelight that time the power went out.

The impromptu Bon Jovi car dancing concert at the end of that long and tiring road trip.

The best milkshake you ever had at that offbeat diner you stopped at in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve never heard anyone say they have too much magic and wonder in their lives. But I’ve run across countless people – very productive ones I might add – who feel like their lives have turned stale.

Like travelers trying to stick one more pair of shoes into an already overflowing suitcase, we are ever on the lookout for the latest productivity hack that will enable us to squeeze one more action into our schedule. Our calendars runneth over with recitals, meetings, games, playdates, family obligations, and household errands. Even our vacations are scheduled, down to the minute.

Perhaps the productivity hack we are missing is actually scheduling time for spontaneity.

Can one schedule spontaneity? Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron?

Well, we certainly can’t predict what will come from our moments, but we sure can schedule more space for them to happen. I like to think of it as “unscheduling.” Here are some tips that have worked for me:

  • One thing I cannot recommend highly enough is the commitment to practice a weekly Sabbath, no matter what your religious leanings may be. It totally changed our life and keeps us from going crazy.
  • When you plan out your day, don’t fill every minute. Create space for the unexpected phone call, friendly visitor, or the project that goes longer than expected.
  • And when it comes to vacations, fill even less. Sure, block out the big things, the landmarks and tourist attractions you’d like to see, but block out some space for the unexpected side roads or to merely just “be.”

Spontaneity builds relationships. It can breathe new life into stale ones.

Unschedule some time to go do something unexpected.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and My Broken Remote

weeds-or-wishes

I’ve recently been lamenting the fact that our TV’s remote control is on the fritz. It’s not a battery issue, it’s just the power button that seems to be on strike. I’ve pegged my youngest daughter (the two-year-old) as the prime suspect for its early demise. Although I have no hard evidence, she is often seen secretly holding the remote, and the power button just so happens to be the only red button in a sea of black ones. I’m just saying.

Regardless of the culprit, my frustration joins the chorus of a gazillion other parents who have crooned, “This is why we can’t have nice things…”

On a seemingly unrelated note, one of the stops we made as a family during our recent #Notarule Tour swing west was to De Smet, South Dakota. It’s the location of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesteads, and has a lot of interactive things to do. Lucy read all the books with her Godmom Jenna, and we have been watching the television series together as a family. (They just don’t make shows like that anymore, folks. Plus, Michael Landon is a real national treasure!)

We were able to reserve one of the four covered wagons available to sleep in overnight, so that was the highlight. It was also the worst night of sleep I think I’ve ever had. It’s remarkable to think that our set-up – we actually had electricity, so it wasn’t exactly “roughing it” – would have been a dream to those early settlers.

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Other discoveries were equally eye-opening. Covered wagons had wooden wheels; no shocks, struts, or satellite radio, and it took them all day to go 15 miles. At one point, Laura and her family lived in a dugout, which was basically a dirt home carved out of a hillside with one window and a single stove in the center. Of course, there were no supermarkets around, so they had to provide their own food, and make their own soap. One long winter, all they had to eat was plain old wheat bread. Which had to be baked day after day, after grinding the flour by hand, and eaten without any butter.

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My kids got to try their hand at washing and drying clothes, like they did in the days before spin cycles and permanent press.

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And they made corncob dolls just like the one Laura had. Honestly, I thought calling it a doll was a bit of a stretch. No face, no limbs, and certainly no karate-chop action.

corncob-doll

It was a tremendous experience for all of us. (You can see pictures on our homeschooling scrapbook.) I came away awed by the ingenuity of these pioneers amidst such humble circumstances, and grateful for the multitude of things I take for granted in my own life.

It’s amazing how a change in perspective really can change everything.

Which is to say, I’m no longer all that concerned with the malfunctioning power button on my remote control.

Beware the Flow

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Here’s an interesting tidbit:

“The advent of the computer age promised shorter working hours and more time to play. As early as 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted that by the year 2000 employees would be working only 20 hours per week while enjoying up to seven weeks of vacation annually.” –Marion Elizabeth Witte, The No-Regrets Bucket List

Oops.

We probably do get twice as much done in 20 hours today than we did in 40 hours in 1965. And it’s possible that 50 years from now, we will have figured out how to get just as much done as we do today in half the time.

The question is, will we finally give ourselves permission to not drive ourselves so hard? To devote more time to the people and causes we care about the most?

I think we all know the answer to that.

My friend John works in Chicago. He leaves his house before 6:00 in the morning so he can beat the worst of traffic. He told me that at that hour, if you’re not going 80 or 90 miles per hour, you’re liable to get run off the road. The police don’t stop anyone, because frankly, everyone’s doing it and they know that doing so is likely to make traffic even worse later.

90 miles an hour doesn’t feel that fast when everybody’s doing it. It feels normal, even.

Indeed, it’s always been and always will be easier and more convenient to just go with the flow. But that doesn’t mean the flow is the best place to reside.

In fact, the flow can take you in the opposite direction of where you really want to be.

Beware the flow.

The Shocking Truth About Your So-Called Priorities

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Do you ever struggle with balancing all of the priorities competing for your attention?

Yeah, me too. I’ve often felt like my life is the love child of the movies Mission Impossible and Groundhog Day.

Then I discovered this: The word “priority” first entered the English language in the 14th century. Notice the singular tense. It comes from the Medieval Latin word “prioritas,” which literally means “the condition of being first.” It was not until the 20th century that we went ahead and pluralized it, creating the word “priorities.”

Magic!

Except for the fact that it’s impossible for there to be more than one “first.”

No wonder we get so frustrated when we try and juggle all of our “priorities.” There’s no such thing!

Before kids, my priority was my business. That is, it was the driver of most of the decisions in my life. Now my priority is my family.

But too often, I’d operated under the impression that both were my priority, which caused all kinds of trouble, because I felt like I was doing something wrong when they conflicted with one another. Turns out I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just trying to do something impossible.

Most people claim that their loved ones are their priority. But their actions don’t often reflect it. Not because they are liars, but because they are humans. With egos.

Maybe you’ll be able to relate to this quote as much as I did:

“Because of our proclivity to veer in the direction of things that stroke our ego, we tend to cheat at home. We give an inordinate amount of our time, energy, and passion to our work.”
–Andy Stanley, Choosing to Cheat

Makes sense to me.

You get awards at work. Special parking places. Better offices. Fancy titles. Respect from your peers. The feeling of accomplishment when you finish a task. Oh, and you get paid cash money.

In contrast, let’s take the job of parenting. It’s a job you do for free. There are no awards, fans, or fancy titles. It’s hard to tell if you’re doing a good job (and most of the time you feel like you aren’t).

My daughter Ginny recently went through a phase where she basically wanted nothing to do with me. She’d run away when I tried to pick her up. If I happened to catch her, she wriggled like mad to break free. If I tried to comfort her when she was crying, she cried harder. I’m not Mommy, ergo, I’m the devil.

Definitely not an ego boost.

My ego will take a line of people who clap after I speak and want my autograph, please.

Since I don’t want my ego to be the boss of me, I have to make a conscious decision about my priority.

Here’s the thing: saying something is a priority is easy, but entirely meaningless. The only indicator of your true priority is what you do, not what you say. When faced with a scenario in which you have to choose one thing over another — such as bringing work home to catch up on paperwork, versus spending the evening playing board games with your family — which one do you choose more often than not?

That’s your priority.

So when you feel like a crazy person trying to balance all of your “priorities,” cut yourself some slack. You are awesome, but you can’t do impossible things.

Instead, a better use of your attention is to make sure your intended priority and real actions are playing nice together.

How to Deal with Difficult, Adultitis-Ridden People

not-my-circus

Since 94% of the population suffers from at least a mild form of Adultitis, odds are that anyone with a job has to work with someone infected with this vile disease. Maybe it’s a co-worker, or a client, or – gulp! – the boss. Sometimes the people I chat with after my speaking programs will confess to being married to someone with a full-blown case of Adultitis.

So the question, of course, is how do I fix someone who has it?

Unfortunately, the truth is…you don’t.

I am a professional speaker. Most speakers I know started their career with the hope of making a difference and changing lives. I certainly did.

If you do it long enough, you’ll likely to come across the uplifting statistic that informs you that your audience will probably forget almost everything you said the minute they walk out the door. Eventually you will realize that you do not have any ability whatsoever of changing someone’s life. Entertain, sure. Inspire, maybe. But change? That’s up to them, not you. (Newsflash: this little rule also applies to any husbands, wives, parents, and teachers who may be reading.)

It’s hard to not feel like you’re a professional exerciser of futility.

The thing is, the more quickly you accept this reality, the better speaker you become.

When you are not worried about the guy in the front row crossing his arms, or the lady who ducked out the back, or whether or not you will get a standing ovation, the more you will be able to focus on being your authentic, true self and allow your message to land where it will.

And THEN you might make some sort of difference for someone.

You may not make a living from being on stage, but the principle is the same. When dealing with people who have Adultitis, there is only so much you can do. This is it:

1) Do your best to be a good example. Take yourself lightly. Live your life cheerfully, with humor and joyful anticipation. In the best-case scenario, these people will see and be inspired by your approach to life and a little will rub off. Maybe they’ll even ask for your secret and then you can help them on the road to recovery.

2) If your example alone doesn’t make a dent, you should incorporate their office supplies or car keys into jell-o molds. (Just kidding.) (Not really.) Maybe you could try sending them flowers or a box of cookies. Maybe they just need someone to notice them and be kind to them.

3) If you’re still running into a brick wall of Adultitis, your only other option is to ignore them and do your best to limit your exposure to them. You don’t have to be mean about it; you just have to be intentional. Depending on your relationship, you might consider deleting them from your life. Harsh I know, but life is too short to have the joy sucked out of you by someone with a full-blown case of Adultitis.

4) “Woah, buddy,” you may be thinking. “That’s a little extreme. And it’s not exactly gonna work. This is my spouse you’re talking about,” or “I can’t exactly fire my idiot co-worker.” If extracting yourself from the situation is not an option, you should make a priority to surround yourself with people who are relatively Adultitis-free. These relationships will help bolster your energy levels, and serve as a forcefield from the Adultitis-ridden zombies in your life. (By the way, if you’re looking to connect with some other like-minded people who are the bees knees, join us for our next Facebook Party this Wednesday night!)

Is it an ideal solution? No, but it’s reality.

You are only the ringmaster of your circus and your monkeys. Focus on the things you can control: your attitude, your actions, and the people you choose to spend most of your time with. Let go of the things you can’t.

Simple, although certainly not easy.

Striving for an Adultitis-free life will not always yield the results you’d like. You may not be able to make someone change, but it’s always possible to make a difference.

Don’t be surprised if the difference is in you.

Anticipate Edits

different-is-cool

I recently had a conversation with a scientist about how scientists are kids who managed to grow up with their curiosity intact, and now get to play with even cooler toys.

She expressed frustration that for a scientist, the Adultitis often sets in when submitting one’s work for review to the scientific community. The paperwork alone can be a nightmare, but most often it’s the curse of common knowledge that’s the real culprit.

Sometimes new theories appear pretty “out there,” challenging the very foundation of the status quo. It’s tempting to label the authors of these theories as kooks, dismissing them out of hand. Certainly, there are times when crackpot theories really are crackpot theories. But it is awfully dangerous to allow dismissal to be our default reaction.

For instance, there once was a man named Iggy who put forth a theory that had the potential to save countless lives. But it flew in the face of the established scientific and medical opinions. The crazy thing is, when it was tested, it worked. Every time. The only problem was that Iggy couldn’t give a scientific reason as to WHY. So poor Iggy was labeled a crackpot and was eventually committed to an insane asylum at the age of 47 and died 14 days later, after being beaten by the guards.

So what was Iggy’s crazeballs idea? Just that it might be a good idea for doctors to wash their hands before working with patients.

Fortunately for Iggy, formally known as Ignaz Semmelweis, a small group of curious scientists experimented with the procedures that he proposed, and his theories finally gained widespread acceptance years after his death, partly thanks to Louis Pasteur’s scientific confirmation of germ theory.

Here’s another interesting tidbit:

“The so-called Semmelweis reflex — a metaphor for a certain type of human behaviour characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms — is named after Semmelweis, whose perfectly reasonable hand-washing suggestions were ridiculed and rejected by his contemporaries.”

It’s outrageous to think that scientists could be swayed by ridiculously irrational judgements and assumptions. After all, aren’t they supposed to be all about rational, systematic ways of acquiring knowledge?

But alas, scientists are still human, and we are all prone to this behavior. How many times have you prejudged someone, only to find that after getting to know them better, your initial appraisal was way off the mark? (most of my best friends fall into this category.)

We are taught in after-school specials that prejudice is bad, and if we catch ourselves doing it, we often feel guilty or ashamed. But my good friend Jessica Pettitt, who is a champion for social justice, reminded me that we shouldn’t feel guilty for making these judgements and assumptions, because we often make them for really good reasons. For example, to feel safe, or prepared.

What really matters is what we DO with these judgements and assumptions.

Jessica’s suggestion is this: “When you write that first story, print it as a draft, triple-spaced with extra wide margins. You do this because you’re anticipating edits.”

The scientists who originally branded Iggy a crackpot weren’t jerks for thinking that his ideas were weird. They were jerks because they didn’t leave enough room for edits to their original story about him. Which is a shame when you think about how many lives could have been saved.

Hopefully our actions will not lead to such life and death consequences, but it’s still worth remembering that not all kooks are kooks.

Anticipate edits.

Do You Need to Be a Workaholic to Be Great?

steve-kerr-celebrates

Is it possible to be great and well-balanced at the same time?

By great, I mean championship quality. Among the best in the world.

And by well-balanced, I don’t mean that you’re never stressed, or are able to fit everything in, and be all things to all people. What I mean is that you don’t have to be singularly focused on being great.

People like Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple) and James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar) are undeniably great. But if you dig into their stories, they certainly weren’t balanced. Neither would ever be considered for a “Father of the Year” award. Cameron has been quoted as saying, “Anybody can be a father or husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do, and I’m going for that.”

I want to be a great artist, author, and speaker. But I don’t want to sacrifice everything else to achieve it. Kim and I decided a few years ago that if we ended up impacted millions of people in a positive way, but our kids turned out to be a-holes (or grow up to regard us as a-holes), we failed.

So many examples seem to indicate that in order to be among the best in the world at what you do, balance has to be thrown out the window.

And so I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my commitment to my family would likely limit the impact I’d make on the world.

Then I read a Sports Illustrated article about Steve Kerr, the head coach of the recently-crowned NBA champion Golden State Warriors. I’m a Bulls fan, and have fond memories of Steve’s playing days in Chicago, so I was happy to see him win. The story gave me hope that perhaps greatness and balance were not mutually exclusive. An excerpt:

He is in a profession that does not normally lend itself to perspective, or balance. The sketch of the modern coach borders on caricature: watching Synergy cutups until his eyes bleed, writing notes until his fingers ache, falling asleep on the office floor and wearing the same tracksuit the next day.

Kerr hikes Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in Oakland. He surfs Pipes Beach in San Diego. He grills carne asada for his daughter, Maddy, and her volleyball teammates at Cal. For a week every summer he flies to a buddy’s ranch in Baja California and stays in cheap motels near Scorpion Bay. Or he throws up a tent on the sand. “What’s your ZFL level?” you can ask him, and he’ll reply with a smile, “Pretty high.” ZFL is one of his pet acronyms: Zest For Life.

After games, even losses, he doesn’t dive immediately into video on the plane. He cracks open a book, or plays Scrabble on his computer, while slow slipping a Modelo Especial. Only then does he queue up the video. Don’t get it wrong. None of this means he cares any less than his Belichickian brethren. He once broke a racket over his head during a tennis match. He practiced scribbling last summer so he could jot sets faster at timeouts. He drew 8 technical fouls this season despite losing just 15 games.

Kerr needs his books, his Counting Crows songs, his driving range swings at Tilden Park Golf Course to shield himself from the same competitive grease fire that consumes them all.

I love that: “to shield himself from the same competitive grease fire that consumes them all.”

Kerr is a direct contrast to Tom Thibodeau, former head coach of the Bulls. Thibodeau is well-known for having absolutely no life outside of basketball. He drives his players hard and himself harder, often sleeping in his office to watch game film. He is widely regarded as a great coach, but I wonder if his lack of balance actually hinders him from greater success.

It seems almost heretical to consider, but I’m beginning to wonder if Steve Jobs would have been even more successful had he paid a little bit more attention to things outside of Apple. Indeed, studies show that at a certain point, working more hours is a waste of time, based on the loss of productivity.

Look, I don’t really know any of these people. But I do know that we often worship the accomplishments of the super successful, while conveniently ignoring the trail of health problems and broken relationships left in their wake.

I have struggled to find examples of people who have achieved true greatness and maintained a true sense of balance. I used to think it was because they didn’t exist.

The success and story of Steve Kerr gives me hope.

#notarule: winning at business and life by breaking rules that don’t exist

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“Blessed are the rule breakers. They shalt inherit the Future. We have always admired the great renegades of business, brave souls who dared to deny the status quo, defy the odds, and pioneer a new normal. Nicolas Tesla. Richard Branson. Tony Stark. One thing all great titans of industry have in common is this: they were able to identify rules that don’t exist and had the courage to break them. Of course, there are plenty of rules that DO exist. If you commit fraud or neglect to pay taxes, I hope you look good in an orange jumpsuit. But the rules that DON’T exist greatly outnumber the ones that do. History is filled with examples of those who profited greatly by dispensing with so-called ‘rules.’”

This is an excerpt of my new ChangeThis manifesto that talks about the rules that don’t exist and specifically delves into how to get good at noticing these so-called rules and how to muster up the courage to actually break them.

It’s a quick read and free to download, please feel free to share it with friends, family, co-workers, bosses and sworn enemies (which may not be mutually exclusive.)

Answering the What-Ifs

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I met an engineer who liked her job, but didn’t LOVE it. She really wanted to be a graphic designer but was worried that if she tried pursuing it as a profession, it would take all the fun out of it. For now, it was a creative outlet that she enjoyed, and she didn’t want to risk losing that.

It was a perfectly legitimate concern that paralyzed her from taking action for no good reason.

This is an ideal example of the benefits of what I call tinkering. Rather than maintain an “all-or-nothing” mindset, where we demand knowing how it will all work out before we take a single step, just tinker.

In this case, the woman could do a call out to her network, letting them know she was open for helping out with any small design projects people might need help with, from a logo for a small business to a flyer, to promote the school bake sale. If she likes it, and it’s still fun, she can do more. Maybe it will grow into a full-fledged business someday. If she doesn’t enjoy it, she can stop, and keep her creative endeavors personal. And then at least she will know for sure.

Don’t let something you don’t know paralyze you from exploring opportunities to make your story even better.

Become an Adultitis Fighter!

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