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Epictetus on choices and living artfully

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My wife put a lamp by the deeply cushioned chair in our bedroom last night to make a new reading spot in our house, and I gave it a go. I sat down to read from an actual book, made from paper. It was my hardcover copy of The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell’s collection of the best of the wisdom of the first and second century Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus had been a slave who earned his freedom through his excellence as a student and, eventually, a teacher of Stoic philosophy. Nothing he may have written survives, but his students collected and saved his teachings, which went on to influence everyone’s favorite philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. (Marcus was an emperor, not a king, of course. Philosopher emperor was beyond even Plato’s imagination.)

The single sentence on the opening page above is as good an exhortation as anyone could need. But it’s followed on the next page by this jewel of simple yet often neglected common sense:

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We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

We don’t have much control over what happens around us and to us, but we do get to choose our response. Easy to understand. Hard, though, to own that choice standing in the often very small, poorly lit gap between stimulus and response.

I’ve got to at least be more aware that I am making these choices. I am responsible – able to choose my response – and not made to do or be anything not in my choosing. No one or no thing can make me angry, for example. I may choose to be angry in response, but it’s my choice, whether I own up to it or not.

I need these reminders regularly. Searching to share something insightful every day has been a great way to live a more adventurous inner life and to remind myself to do better, to grow and improve. These notes to self that I share publicly have become a daily discipline that I hope will keep me sharp and curious. I recommend this to anyone looking to make better sense of their own thinking and their place in the universe. Oh, that’s everyone. Of course, everyone should write.

We all are artists creating a unique life, a life that’s never been before and never will be again. Choose to craft yours as though you’re sculpting a masterpiece.

Life is asking us a question

From Ryan Holiday’s excellent book The Obstacle is the Way:

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.

The question to awaken possibility

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What if you asked “What if …?” like it was your job?

What if you put no limits on the answers?

What if you asked this about your work, your relationships, your dreams for who you want to become?

What if asking this became a habit, a part of your weekly, or daily, routine?

What if you become known for your embrace of possibility?

What if you helped awaken possibility in others?

What if you actually did something to make even a handful of those possibilities become reality?

The end (of the year) is near: The ten week challenge

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The end is near. Ten weeks till December 31. The year is in wind down mode. But how can you gear up for a strong finish, so you can look back on 2014 as a remarkable year in your life?

Ten weeks is enough time to build a habit, to craft a routine, to hone a system.

Me, I’m going back to my hundred pushups plan. It will be rewarding to finish the year physically stronger than I started it. I’m also going to focus on tightening my daily habits for reading and writing. I want to aim for a bigger writing project than posting on this site daily. And I’m going to be intentional about more quality time with my family.

It’s easy to slack off as the holiday season approaches, to defer discipline and hard things to the new year. But imagine how you hope to feel on December 31. What project have you put off that would excite you if you did it? What relationship in your life needs attention? Is there a worthwhile challenge that scares you a bit? Which habit can you form that would make a big difference?

Open a document or grab a marker and some paper and write: “What if…?”

Respond quickly to that question with as many possibilities for the next few weeks as you can imagine. Then go through that list and focus on the possibilities that elicit the most excitement. Now put a plan in place to make them happen and get busy.

Schedule an appointment with yourself for December 31 to review your year and to begin planning your adventures for 2015.

How can this be your best year yet? A lot can be done in ten weeks. It’s not too late to take action and finish strong.

Presenters: Prepare for AV to fail

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I did a talk to a student group last night and the AV didn’t work. It was in the main classroom building on campus where I’ve never had any AV problems before.* I had just created a new version of this presentation earlier in the day and hadn’t taken the time to rehearse, so when I didn’t have the slides to guide me I was a bit lost. But I winged it and jumped in with enthusiasm. I knew my stories and points well. I wasn’t solid on the new structure and flow, though. It was an audience eager to engage and smile, so they were very forgiving of my somewhat disorganized delivery.

A presentation is not about the slides, of course. It’s about the interaction, the connection between the presenter and the audience. And seeing an audience like last night’s was so encouraging. It makes me want to make the effort to be the kind of audience member who gives presenters engaged attention and smiling eyes.

About halfway through last night, one of my brilliant friends in attendance (Thanks, Sheryar!) got a version of my slides to work, so I shuffled through the deck and made them fit where I was in my talk.

This experience reminded me to walk into every presentation with the assumption the AV won’t work and to be prepared to go without any visuals at all. I let this audience down by not being ready to give my best no matter what happened with the AV.

Here is a PDF of the slides that I didn’t get to fully use. Next time, I’ll be ready to roll with or without them.

 

*I present using Keynote on an iPad mini connected by a VGA adapter to the projector. My remote control to advance the slides is Keynote on an iPhone. Usually, connecting the iPad to a VGA input works perfectly. Not this time.

Showing my work: FAB 4

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Showing my work helps remind me what a rewardingly messy process creation is. An audience typically only sees the well honed final creation, but it’s worthwhile to share openly the process that creates the product. I take heart when I see an artist show the rough drafts and discarded wrong steps.

I’m remixing a presentation for tonight. I’m speaking to a group of college freshmen and sharing wisdom I’ve learned from a career working with campus superstars. I’ve got a handful of ideas and stories I rely on for these kinds of talks, but this morning I decided to scrap a version of the talk I’ve used recently and rethink the structure and design.

I turned my chair around, away from the computer, and took some markers to the jumbo scratch pad on my desk. I mapped out the most important ideas and rearranged the flow before turning back around and designing the slides in Keynote.

It helps to change tools and switch from digital to analog to jump start a fresh approach. And it’s worthwhile to take something you’ve got down pat and jumble it up and start over. New possibilities appear that otherwise would have been hidden behind old, safe patterns.

 

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Dig deep

Meditations 7.59:
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Digging is hard. It’s easy to just stay on the surface. But the good stuff often is buried down deep and will require some effort to get to. But the good stuff is worth the effort.

That hard conversation? That creative project? The vision you have for the kind of person you truly want to be? Dig deep and conquer the resistance keeping you from the goodness buried below.

John Gruber tells the Daring Fireball story

Daring Fireball is a daily must-read for me. And John Gruber has one of the most consistently distinctive and quote-worthy takes on Apple and all things tech. I’m a fan and have a couple of Daring Fireball t-shirts I wear proudly. (I’m normally a plain-t kind of guy, so it’s a big deal for me to sport someone’s logo.)

Gruber has a great story about how he made his blog into his full-time career, and he told it on the XOXO Festival stage recently:

If you think you’ve missed the boat, that it’s too late for you to get in on the possibilities created by the internet, you are wrong. It’s still early. We are just at the edge of the frontier. But don’t wait around thinking about it. Claim your stake online now. Buy that domain name. Get started on WordPress or Squarespace or Tumblr. Make something you’re proud to share with the world. And keep doing it. And keep getting better.

Be the CEO of your life

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You may not be anyone’s boss. You might have a whole corporate ladder of bosses above you. But you are your own boss whether you’re self-employed or not.

You might just have only a puny little cubicle from which to stake your claim on great work. But make the most of where you are. Fully inhabit that cubicle like it’s the corner executive suite. Be awesome right there.

Own your job. Master your roles. Work like a boss. Be the CEO of your life.

Putting the work in

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“When writing, I adhere to the old adage that if you want to get hit by a train you better go stand on the track. There’s no substitute for just putting the work in and writing with a very concerted, focused effort. At the end of the day it all comes down to synthesizing a whole host of ideas, so you better have a lot of ideas at the ready when it comes time to put the little Frankenstein monster together.” –St. Vincent’s Annie Clark

An Austin Kleon tweet pointed to this excellent interview with the musician Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, about her creative process.

This jibes with everything I’m finding lately about creative people. Inspiration is for amateurs. Pros just do work. They show up and get busy whether they feel like it or not.

Our star-filled neighborhood

 

This photo of the Milky Way by astrophotographer Robert Gendler is stunning:GSC_6273_289

Click on this photo to enlarge it for full awesomeness and existential stupefaction.

Phil Plait wrote about it on his site yesterday. Look into what seems like a cloud and realize you’re looking at countless individual stars and their glow. How tightly packed these stars seem to be. Each one a massive wonder in its own right, a peer to our sun, maybe with Earth-like planets orbiting. So much mystery and possibility in this fabulous photo.

There are probably more than 200 billion stars in just our galaxy. And there are probably at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.

We are so, so small. A speck in a vast sea of wonders. But knowing how small we are makes us grander than we have ever been as a species. Embracing our place in the universe is the first step on the path to understanding and expressing the epic magnificence of reality.

Having a bad day? A little star gazing is good for the soul and will recalibrate your perspective while crushing your puny so-called problems. Just look up.

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Life ought to be about living

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings and conferences, study groups and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.  –Henri Nouwen

I feel weighed down by undone tasks and projects looming behind distractions and delay. Being productive, being busy, is made out to be the virtue that validates your worth. But life ought to be about just living, not accomplishing. And I need to just be with people – my wife and daughters, my coworkers and students, my friends.

I do delight in just wandering through the office and making small talk and checking in on those I work with. It’s management by walking around. I don’t aim to disrupt, but I’m eager to enjoy a conversation when the opportunity is there and acknowledge that we are in this together.

Some of my most joyful moments are spent not in getting anything done, but in just enjoying connecting with a fellow human. Pull up a chair next to a friend. Cuddle with your love. Play with your kid. Share a meal and a laugh. No agenda. Nothing to prove or accomplish. Just spread some love and some kindness and revel in being alive in this moment.

Aim to peak at 60

IMG_1247.PNGI was telling a group of college students last night they should aim to peak at age 60. They stared blankly at me. I’m not sure if they were processing the thought or erasing it as ludicrous. When you’re 19, 25 seems old. And 30+ is even hard to imagine.

“But hear me out”, I said. If the decisions you make today are guided by the long game, by the intent to improve consistently over a long period of time, imagine the perspective that will offer you. Instead of attempting to rule the world by age 30, you can slow down and focus on being the best you can be in this moment. No pressure. No need to compare yourself to others and measure your worth by the fleeting and fickle whims of our culture and what “success” means superficially.

Put some blinders on and just focus on getting a little better each week. Use your 20’s to just start figuring out what it means to be an adult, to start mastering something valuable in your work life and in your quest to be fully human in your intellectual and emotional growth.

Build a solid base in your 20’s and you’ll be in a good place for the opportunities bound to come in your 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. Imagine the kind of person you hope to be when you’re 60. Live your way into that vision slowly and surely.

 

 

Hero Quest

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I’m tweaking the slides for a presentation I’m giving tonight to a group of business students. This is my “HeroQuest” talk.

If I had to tweet the purpose of this talk, it would be this:

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I want these college students to walk away tonight with new possibilities for the future and knowing it is in their power to craft a remarkable and meaningful life, a life worth talking about.

I welcome these speaking invitations. Preparing a talk for a group compels me to think in ways I wouldn’t otherwise have to. And the best way to understand truth or beauty or what it means to live a good life is to try to express it. Even if my talk tonight connects with no one in the audience, it’s been worthwhile to think through these ideas and try to understand them myself.

 

You will live more curiously if you write

A great post from a couple of years ago from James Somers that Chris Guillebeau pointed to recently – More people should write – with a challenge to all to take up a creative habit:

That’s the promise: you will live more curiously if you write. You will become a scientist, if not of the natural world then of whatever world you care about. More of that world will pop alive. You will see more when you look at it.

Somers conveys so well what I’ve experienced. When you are intentional about regularly expressing yourself it raises your antennae to life. I’ve challenged myself to post something on this site every day, so I wake up each day knowing I must come up with something worth sharing. And I see the world just a little differently than I did when I wasn’t writing every day. I’m on the hunt for ideas and insight and experiences that I can wrap these keys around.  I’m more curious and primed for searching, for inquiring, for consumption that sparks creation.

It’s how a photographer sees beauty the rest of us miss. His intention to capture images opens his eyes to marvels all around, marvels those not armed with a camera and a desire to tell a story most likely never notice.

(I’m curious, now that most of us have these terrific cameras in our pockets and ways to easily share photos, if this is turning around, if more people are intentionally searching for beautiful moments to capture and share. The Instagramification of our culture could have some unexpected merit if it means more people are opening their eyes to the world around in ways they never did before.)

The intent to express yourself sparks imagination and stokes curiosity. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike before putting the words down. It works the other way around. Just commit to expressing yourself regularly, even if you don’t know where the ideas will come from. Write, draw, speak, make music… whatever delights you, and summon the muse with your action. Start each day with the intent to express yourself, and you will end up inhabiting more mindfully aware and interesting days.

 

The infinity of past and future gapes before us

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Meditations 5.23-24:

23. Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.
So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
24. Remember:
Matter. How tiny your share of it.
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.
Fate. How small a role you play in it.

Get back up

Meditations 5.9:

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

No need to be down on yourself for failing to be perfect. Accept that you are imperfect. Embrace it, even. But get up and keep aiming for the ideal you have for yourself. Be a human and stand up and try again. This could be the best day of your life.

Maddux and heartbreak and writing with movement

This long feature on SB Nation by Jeremy Collins – Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux – is beautifully written and heartbreaking.

Yes, it’s about Greg Maddux, my favorite baseball player and one of the most enigmatic, masterful athletes of our generation. But it’s mostly about the author coming to terms with the tragic loss of his childhood friend, a friend who was obsessed with and inspired by Greg Maddux.

Maddux was not some physical freak who overpowered batters with strength. He just out-thought and out-executed those he faced. He was a mere mortal who through his own will and savvy and plodding discipline became the best in the game. And he approached the game with an apparent detachment that belied the ferocity with which he performed so fully in the present. When he misfired, a loud profanity punctuated the moment. And then an immediate reset. Back to the moment at hand, calm, calculating. His approach was a Stoic one, dealing with only what he could control and shaking off anything out of his hands.

The story Jeremy Collins tells ties this ideal that Maddux represented, control and mastery, to the tragedy of his friend who reached for that ideal as he grasped for hope in reorienting his young, ill-fated life.

Collins’s piece is well worth the time to read it. You know when you’ve read something that was written with both heart and mastery. This bit of writing is Maddux-like in its artistry. It’s a fitting tribute to a lost friend and to an iconic, inspiring hero. Like a pitch from Maddux, it knicks the edges and moves unpredictably and so effectively.

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