Most of our puzzling problems or potential opportunities are unique to us. This is why you can’t Google the solution without getting some pretty lame advice. Advice from the Web or from YouTube is either obvious, or you don’t want to do it, or it doesn’t apply to you and your situation.
Last month I gave a guest Zoom lecture for an online course for graduating students. Part of the lecture was how they can change habits and get out of unwanted ruts. There was Q&A at the end, and the last question was “How can a person find time to think more deeply about how to solve problems or make opportunities in their life?”
This is a great question because we all have tons of things in our lives that we would like to be better but we’re not sure how to do it. We might try half-heartedly do one or two obvious things and shrug when they don’t work. These can range from important things like “How do I find an exciting job where I’ll learn a lot” or “How can I find a great spouse,” to small, but nagging little problems like “How can my stop dog, Spot, from making spots in my apartment,” or “What should I do about all of that junk in the garage?”
But we don’t usually try too hard to solve these problems. That is, we usually don’t come up with the right answers because we don’t think in a focused, deep way about how to solve them. We moan about them, we avoid them, or we settle for an expedient band-aid solution.
Still, no one’s better able to find the unique-to-you answers to these problems better than you. If you had an easy strategy to come up with the answers, your answers might not be perfect, but they would be a huge move in the right direction.
When this person asked this excellent question in this class, I shared something with him and with the I’ve been experimenting with and modifying for couple years. It’s been working well for me and although it was a bit off-topic from my lecture. I thought it would be useful as they venture off to great new possibilities. Over the past years, I’ve distilled into three steps:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. Find 30 minutes of undistracted, nonelectronic time, and grab a journal or a piece of paper and pen. This can be first thing in the morning (best) or just before bed (next best). At the top of the paper write down “10 Actions for . . . . “ and then plug in your problem or opportunity.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem that’s Most on Your Mind. Write down 10 actions that you believe you could realistically take (if you wanted) to help start solving your problem. The more specific your answer the better. Your first 3-4 actions will come fast because they are obvious, but they’re also the actions you probably don’t want to take, or this wouldn’t be a problem. The next 3-4 are going to take thought, because you’re stretching past the obvious. The last 3-4 will be difficult to generate and might seem pretty wacky, but it’s often where your real turn-around insights will happen. The key take-away is that you must write down 10, even if a bunch of them seem too far out of the box.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. Schedule your 2-4 best and easiest ideas into your to-do list or calendar. You can do more, but usually 2-4 is enough to get you unstuck and to make huge progress.
If an example would be useful, let me show you want this has looked like for me so far this week.
Most mornings I think of one thing that’s on my mind that I’m unsure how to tackle. Yesterday was Monday and my topic was how can I change the home page for a website I’m creating for family meals. Today’s topic was how I can learn 14 new-to-me songs in four days for a new band I just joined. Here’s what the first 30 minutes of my day looked like yesterday and today:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. I did them first thing in the morning. I laid on my home office couch with a journal and a pen. This was before anyone else was up, and before I turned on my computer or checked my phone.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem. This took me about 25 minutes with the webpage issue, but it took me about 45 minutes with the new songs issue because the problem was so unfamiliar to me that I spent a lot of time holding a pen and staring at the paper. I spend a bit more than 30 minutes because I felt I was on a roll. You’ll also notice below that for the web page, I put down 11 ideas on the page (and a couple others on the next) since things were flowing.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. For the website issue, I acted on idea last night and put the others on the calendar for next Monday (after the 3-day weekend). For the songs, I started this morning and created templates for them. I’m sure have lots of problems, and I’ll change them, but at least it will get me over this 4-day hump.
This is fairly personal, and I never shared this approach with anyone (other than my brother and wife) until this person asked during class. There might be a ton of ways you can modify it to work for you, but the main ideas are: Pick an undistracted (no phone) time with pencil and paper, write down 10 (ten) specific actions, and immediately do them or schedule them.
Here’s why this topic came to mind for a column – a full month after the original question was asked.
Last weekend a former graduate student is moving with his family to start a new job, and he has 400 things on his mind. He asked me about two questions/problems/issues he’s facing. After talking, I described this approach to him as a way of tackling the other 398 issues he’ll be facing daily once he drives the moving van into town.
He said, “I do something similar. I come up with 3-4 ideas. I just never do anything about them, and then I forget them.”
I told him the key isn’t usually the first 3-4 solutions to the problem. It’s the next 6-7 pretty great ones come up after you’ve stared at a blank page for 20 minutes. And writing them down helps with remembering. And having them in a journal keeps them organized.
Good luck with trying this out. Give it a week and email me and let me know how its working for you and how you might have adjusted or modified it.
In the meantime, I better get back to playing a lot of wrong notes so I can get them out of the way.
April 15th is the No GPS Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It's a pretty easy date for Americans to remember because April 15th is also the day U.S. income taxes are due.
My niece is a teacher who had always wanted to visit a Titanic museum, so for Spring Break we picked her up for a Titanic-themed vacation. It was filled with frisky penguins, a ghost ship captain, indoor snow tubing, a killer iceberg, swimming, and 2000 miles of driving.
There’s a number of Titanic exhibits I've seen, like in Liverpool and Vegas, but this one (Pigeon Forge, TN) was set up so you could more closely identify with the people on board. For instance, you were given a biography card of someone on the Titanic, and you kind of followed that person around – where they slept, ate, and chilled out. Super-engaging.
At the end there’s a huge biography board where you find out if your character survives (about 1/3 do), what they looked like, and what happened to them afterward.
There’s probably 20-30 rooms with exhibits and actors, and interactive things like trying to walk on a 30-degree tilting deck. Yet the two things I’ve thought about many times in the past week both happened in the very last room. The one just before the gift shop.
There’s a climatic scene in the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan when the only surviving person in the battle, Private Ryan (ill-timed **spoiler alert**) is told by his dying Captain “to make his life worth it.” The movie then flashes to present day when he asks his wife to hopefully confirm to him that he lived a worthy life.
Did any of the survivors on Titanic's biography board do anything different after they were rescued to “make their life worth it?” To be sure, some people had some pretty tragic years that followed (suicide, prison, bankruptcy, multiple divorces and addictions), and some charmed-life rich people seemed to continue to have charmed lives. There was little indication of which people might have done something different to have make their life “worth it.” Sometimes it might be only the person themself who knows it.
If we were dramatically given a lucky lifeboat seat -- like the some of the Titanic survivors -- I wonder whether we’d try to make life “worth it?” Even if we didn’t know how, there’s a good chance that simply repeatedly asking ourselves that question might guide us in a good direction.
The second Titanic thought was also brought to light in that same dark room. While I was reading that bio board, a 90-year-old 6’4” ghost of the Titanic’s Captain Smith silently came into that somber room, walked over to a spot-lighted Captains chair, gathered the 20 of us together, and told two riveting eerie stories. Actually, he wasn't a ghost. He’s Lowell Lytle, the person who has portrayed the Captain for 30 years around the world, as his 4th amazing career.
The story he told the small collected group was what happened with the “Women and children first” directive that was given as they lowered the lifeboats. Men would get their wives and children loaded in the lifeboats, and they would then all wave goodbye for the last time as the lifeboats were lowered into the ocean. Three hours earlier they were having together and Dad was telling them to turn their iPhones off, three hours later they were gone.
We often think we’ll have plenty of time to thank people we’re grateful to, or to say “I love you” to people we love. Lytle's point was that we don’t need to wait until the lifeboat’s being lowered away before we say it.
My family spent a 10-hour drive home listening to the amazing ups and downs in Lytle’s real person life (Diving Into the Deep at Encourage Books). We’ve all had lucky breaks in life that merit us asking ourselves if we’ve tried to make our life “worth it.” We’ve also have people we’re grateful for who we need to thank, and we have people we love who are worth telling daily that we love them.
Two Titanic thoughts. I'm happy we can think about them and act on them a long ways from the nearest iceberg.
On New Years Day I asked everyone in the family to come up about 10 accomplishments or contributions they were committed to make in 2021. Last night we discussed them after dinner. The idea is a) if you don't specifically articulate something you'd like to accomplish, it probably won't ever be a clear enough destination for you to reach, and b) if you tell and remind other people of your intentions, they might be able to help.
There's a lot of things that derail our good intentions. About 5 years ago we did a cool study showing the average person (or at least in the US, Germany, and Japan) starts gaining weight in October, and it takes them from January to April to lose it. Some people saw this as discouraging (like the news headline below) because it meant that it would take them 4 months to lose the weight they gained in the last two.
There's a couple other ways to view this. First, your life can be so much bigger and more meaningful than what you weigh. You can contribute things and accomplish things that could overwhelm the importance of losing the 8 pounds you gained since October. If you list out the contributions and accomplishments you'd like to make, it might help put that in better perspective.
Second, the other good news here is that most people eventually did lose most of that weight. It happened slower than they wanted, but most good things -- like the other 9 things on your list -- it wouldn't be worth much to you or to others if any of these magically happened overnight.
There’s a story about a 66-year old guy who always wanted to go to college. After he retired, he was accepted to a local school, and showed up on the opening day of enrollment to sign up for classes. He’s waiting in line and the kid behind him says, “Can I ask how old you are?” The man answers him, and the kid says, “Wow, when you graduate in four years, you’ll be 70.” The man chuckled and said, “In four years, I’ll be 70 anyway.”
Imagine a year from now you're having lunch with a good friend and catching up on what happened in the past 12 months. What would you have had to contribute or accomplish that would lead you to say, "That was an amazing year"? What would the other nine accomplishments be?
No professional guitar player has ever called me to do an interview. Until now. It’s a sign of how desperate COVID has made people for entertainment.
Mike Godette is a NYC guitar player who also has a cool video podcast where he interviews people who have “day gigs” but who play music on the side. After seeing my cameo in the movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” he learned I played saxophone in some rock cover bands. His video podcasts dish out a diet of great guitar player interviews, and he must have thought a sucky sax player would give it some spice.
He’s an interesting interviewer, and he posted this podcast of me. After listening to it, I realized he pulled a lot of crazy stories out of me I wouldn’t have otherwise told. Like . . .
You might have zero interest in eighth-notes, Led Zeppelin, or playing funk music on an Amsterdam canal boat bar, but you probably do have an interest in re-creation – in feeling happier.
Webster's definition of the word “recreation” says “The things you do to screw around when you’re not working.” Instead, it should be hyphenated it as “re-creation:” Things you do to re-create yourself so you have bounce in your step the next day.
Endless types of hobbies can re-create: Gardening, DIY, crafts, photography, even sucking on the saxophone. COVID gives us that chance to recapture these – or find new ones: time travel, taxidermy, witchcraft . . . whatever.
Unfortunately, most of what people do doesn’t re-create them. Look at most kids. They spend endless free time texting, tic-tocking, surfing, or watching TV. Granted, these things are amusing and effortless ways to kill time until they can fall asleep again, but they don’t re-create. They’re no bouncier the next day when they wake up.
We have surprising amounts of time to re-create hobbies that re-create us. What did you once like to do that you could dust off and try again? It’s easy to think we don’t have the time and energy to do it again or to pick up something new. What’s funny is that once you start messing with a hobby, all of this energy magically reappears.
After doing this interview a couple weeks ago, I committed to myself to play my sax at least 20 minutes every night. Now my family has to drag me to bed. It's the only way they can prevent hearing loss and get some sleep.
What’s a new hobby you’d like to try or an old one you’d like to dust off for re-creation?
This is a COVID adaption of a post from last year. It's about how to be productive, and given some of the oscillation in motivation that has been happening with homebound workers, it has a new relevance.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most productive, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
Most of us have some super-productive days and we have some bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time somebody told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like something great happening at work, great news from their kids or spouse, a nice surprise, or nice call or email from a grateful person or an old friend. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive day, they finished a project or a bunch of errands, or they had a breakthrough solution to a problem or something they should do.
External successes are easy to celebrate with our friends. Internal successes are more unpredictable. What made today a great day and what sabotaged yesterday?
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I just got started and seemed to get everything done,” or “I finished up this one thing and then just kept going.”
One of the most productive authors I've known said that got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school and worked there. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with the idea that "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this notion.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems writing, exercise, prayer, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. Daily duties (like email and planning dinner) and pre-scheduled stuff (like meetings and appointments). But what remains are the big things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard deadlines – things starting a new initiative, exploring a great idea for a side hustle, finishing a pet project, or taking the first step to follow that crazy dream you’ve had for 10 years. These are the things that could have the biggest impact on you, come the end of the year.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “ 3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
I’ve also used this with others who I work with, and we usually use it as a starting point for our 1-on-1 weekly meetings. They usually email it to me and it’s a useful check-in. It helps them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of the “Polish this until its perfect” mentality. Also, you can give feedback on what they’re choosing to focus on, and you might be able to speed up what they might be waiting for (especially if its something on your desk).
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
No one has a cousin named Tarzan. No one has a best friend named Goat Boy. That’s because we’re not raised by apes or goats, but we're all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But a lot of others aren’t nearly so obvious. They might be that person who recommended we go to one school versus another, helped get us a job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only his right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in our life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you.”
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
For about 20 years I've wanted to spend a week camping in the Nevada desert, surrounded by 70,000 people and endless adventure. They call it Burning Man, and it's filled with hippies, techies, cool people, nerds, and Nobel Prize winners (more below). Two of my post-docs have gone to it, but since it was always during the first week of school, I could never go because I was always teaching while they were burning stuff.
At Burning Man, there are 500 camps that offer different adventures (from a meditation camp to a Thunderdome camp) and only 8 days to do as many as you want between sand storms and heat waves. The greatest t-shirt I saw said: "THAT'S A HORRIBLE IDEA! What time?" My second favorite was "Safety Third".
Did radio and documentary interviews, and had tons of fun. Learned to direct an orchestra, walk a circus tightrope, do sign language (in painfully slow motion), throw an ax, and make hippy jewelry.
Ran a 5K race, won a Tom Waits poetry reading competition, drank Kirschwasser from a shell (ala Steely Dan), won Forbidden Desert, and was repeatedly accused of being an undercover cop.
If you're an adult with adventure ADD, it's a super great experience. Slightly less than super great if you hate to camp in the dust.
Next year: Burning Man Hampton Inn
The 10 Principles of Burning Man
Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.
Radical Inclusion. Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting. Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
Decommodification. In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Radical Self-reliance. Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical Self-expression. Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Communal Effort. Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Civic Responsibility. We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace. Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Participation. Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediacy. Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
I retire from Cornell tomorrow, two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after they retired. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and then transitioning to half-time until they pad-lock our office door shut to keep us out.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling, you don’t feel any different the day after retirement except you're just no longer being paid. I just had my retirement party last month, and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood Cornell captain’s chair with a metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t seem like a birthday party, and it had a striking effect on me. It was about 15 years ago and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee.
What excited me the most was the other faculty speaker. He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He had won a boatload of awards and occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and people—even his economist colleagues—often spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and at the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Silence .Then he said, I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way. After another much longer pause he said something like this:
“Well, maybe I have one regret. My work lies at the intersection of four areas – economics, finance, real estate, and law. I have a very complete picture of how these interact and how they influence everything from real estate prices in ghettos to land speculation prices in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that I’m the only one who sees the big picture. My papers are published in econ journals and finance journals, while others are published in real estate journals and law reviews. Nobody else sees the big picture because they only read one type of journal.”
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see the big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.” After 45 years of research, he was retiring with one needless regret. This was unfinished business that he would now have the chance to finish, but he was still letting a now irrelevant barrier get in the way.
The metaphor of an "unwritten book" can be a useful metaphor for us who are feeling that our routine is getting too predictable, who are feeling restless, or who find themselves retiring with a feeling there's something more to contribute.
Most people have at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas or interests to a new level of expression. Importantly, it doesn’t need to be writing a book. It might be starting a website and blog, or teaching an adult ed course we’ve wanted to teach. It might be mastering a musical instrument and joining a band, starting a photo travelogue, moving to that lake house you always dreamed of, or starting an online business.
What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t even have to wait until you retired. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our make believe barriers.
Time to start the next chapter.
Someone once told me that he was such an efficient teacher that he usually spent less than 10 minutes preparing to give an hour-long lecture to his college class. Sometimes he said he even did it in real time when he was at the front of the classroom -- he just opened up his folder to see what the topic was for that day and started talking. He was an efficient, but not engaged teacher. He also didn’t enjoy teaching, and saw it as an interruption in other things he’d rather be doing.
“Mailing it in” became a popular phrase at about the same time “I’m working at home” became popular. It means being efficient, but it also seems to mean doing something with the minimal amount of work that is acceptable. Being efficient without being engaged.
I saw the exact opposite of this through a fog of pot smoke this past weekend.
Every May, one of the great parks in Rochester, NY holds a 10-day party in the park called the Lilac Festival. They ship in tons of fried dough and dinosaur-sized turkey legs. They also book really cool bands to play every evening until the police close them down at 8:30.
Last Friday they had booked a great concept called something like Classic Album Concerts. They would pick a classic album and then assemble top-rate musicians who could play the album note-by-note and word-by-word perfect. It would be the perfect live recreation of the album, but with musicians who aren’t dead or in heroin rehab. The first of these was going to be a recreation of the classic Led Zepplin album – “Led Zepplin II.” Since Led Zepplin was my very favorite, most ultimate, highly awesomest band when I was in high school, I rescheduled my Friday afternoon meetings so I could be smunched into the front row. The plan was to drive up to Rochester and sing along with the band for 41:38 minutes while my wife and visiting sister-in-law looked at their watches and occasionally tapped them to see if they were still running.
The band hit every single note and every nuance. Even the spacing between the songs seemed the same length as between the tracks on the album or 8-track. But after we had burrowed through the crowd and pot smoke to get to the front, there was something a little weird happening on the side of the stage. There was a woman with huge head phones who looked like she had jumped on the stage was going to wave and gesture at the crowd until the security guards tackled her to the ground. Then I realized that she was using sign language – she was a sign language translator for people who were deaf or otherwise hearing impaired. This would include people who had stood too close to Led Zepplin amplifiers in the 1970s.
I went back to singing along with the music until there was a 10-minute drum solo. At that point, I started spacing out and again noticed the sign language translating woman. Although there were no words to sign, she was air drumming. Instead of waiting around until the band started singing again, she got so much into the song that she was using her down time to flail around like she was playing Rock Band on the PS4. When they did start singing again, I noticed she then had the same idea during guitar solos. Any time there was a guitar solo, she would switch instruments and play a Guitar Hero solo for the hearing impaired.
From a “Mail it in” perspective, she was ridiculously inefficient. You don’t play have to play your interpretation of the air drums when the real drummer is right next to you. You don’t have to play air guitar for hearing impaired people when you could instead just back up a little bit so that they could better watch the real deal themselves. She didn’t have to do it. She would have been paid the same amount if she had spent the drum solo in the Beer Here Tent.
But from a “Be Engaged” perspective, this is brilliant. She was doing it all: the hair tossing, the tortured face gestures, the sweating . . . everything. I started watching her every time they stopped singing because she would again start playing Guitar Hero. Again, she could have spent the guitar solos tweeting a selfie or buying a Led Zepplin 8-track online, but she instead spent every minute being fully engaged in that minute. Mindlessly mindful. Electric Zen.
If someone told her she was being inefficient, she could have said, “Yeah, but I feel totally alive.”
That might be one big trade-off between focusing on being efficient at a task or being engaged with it. If you’re efficient, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I’m done.” If you’re engaged, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I feel totally alive.”
There’s a place for both. With some tasks, you just want to get them done. If you don’t like cleaning, grading, answering email, or doing your receipts, it makes sense to be more efficient. All of these things can take a variable amount of time, and you want that to be short.
Other tasks, take a fixed amount of time. You have to be in class for 50 minutes, you have to be in a 60-minute meeting, you have to watch a 2-hour dance recital for your third grade daughter, or you have to be a sign language interpreter for a 41:38 minute concert. It’s hard to make these efficient because you have to be there for the entire duration. So you might as well consider being engaged while you’re there. It’s going to take a more effort, but the worse that can happen is that you like it more and that you "feel totally alive."
By the way, if you decide to go on stage and play the air guitar at your daughter’s third grade dance recital, make sure to get a video of it.
Party on, Wayne.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I'm an author and researcher who discovers ways to help people be healthier, happier, and more meaningfully connected. See what works for you, and share it with others.
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