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Alan Watts: Spontaneity is total sincerity


This is from Watts’s brilliant The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:

“Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are
spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen ‘of themselves’ like
digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire
that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone
deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like
forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate
them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of
allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time.”

Improv wisdom. The authentic, the most real things flow naturally without being forced or contrived. Go with the flow. Don’t resist. The spontaneous action is filled with energy that’s missing from most actions which are overthought.

Life happens. Here and now. Just show up.

Joseph Campbell’s samurai tale


I first saw the TV series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, when it was first broadcast on PBS in 1988. I was a young Congressional staff member living in D.C., trying to figure out adult life. That series changed the way I think about my place in the universe. It came at a great time to help me make sense of what it meant to be the hero of my own life.

Campbell is a captivating storyteller, and as a prolific scholar of mythology and world religions he drew from a deep well of human wisdom.


One of my favorite stories he tells is of a samurai warrior on a quest to kill his overlord’s murderer. This is from the transcript of that episode:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.

The samurai’s mission was not simply to kill the murderer, but to honor his master and fulfill his duty. Killing the murderer out of anger would not have fulfilled the intrinsic call of his duty. To an observer, whether he killed the culprit motivated by honor or anger, it wouldn’t have mattered. The murderer would be dead either way.

But to the samurai, his own motivation made all the difference. He needed a crystal clear answer for why he was taking action, and a reactive response out of anger would not only be dishonorable, it would negate the reason for his quest.

You can choose your response. You can observe an unhelpful emotion take hold, but you don’t have to react. You always can choose to act in a way that honors the vision of the person you truly want to be.

Nothing is just a means to an end. Every action is an end in itself. The path is the destination, right? It’s the journey that matters.

Seth Godin’s delightful new book: What To Do When It’s Your Turn

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Yesterday I received Seth Godin’s new book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a delight to hold and thumb through. The design is rich, colorful, and compelling, with big photos and pulled quotes and blog-like bursts of wisdom throughout.

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It is giving me new hope for the printed word, for books with real pages to turn. If you’re book is going to just be words, I can appreciate it just as well on an iPad or a Kindle. But if it aims to connect beyond just words, if there is a feel to it you hope to convey, an aesthetic quality that moves the reader visually and kinesthetically, then digital bits won’t be enough.

Godin’s new book has a pleasing heft, literal and metaphorical weight that you wouldn’t feel if you were reading it on a device. This is the kind of book that’s a bit like a souvenir for ideas. You’ll want to show it off and pass it around, and that’s his aim. Spread great ideas. Ideas with depth deserve a vehicle, a medium, to match.

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As we consider the spread of ideas in the internet age, don’t pour one out for physical books just yet. When you make the whole book a work of art ––not just the art in writing the words, but in crafting the physical container of those words (and images)–– possibilities emerge that take the connection between a creator and an audience to a new level.

Two weeks left in 2014: Merry freaking Christmas!


One Thanksgiving morning years ago when our oldest child was a newborn, my wife and I were struggling to get our act together and get out the door for a drive across the state to a family gathering. We were late. Really late. And figuring out how to get things done with a baby in our life complicated everything.

As we finally got in the car and started down the driveway, my wife, with her frustration finally spilling out at the end our frantic scrambling, looked at me and said, with some intensity: “Happy FREAKING Thanksgiving!” She wasn’t smiling.

I didn’t laugh. On the outside. Until about an hour into the drive.

And then, after a safe time for cooling off had passed, we had a good laugh together. Yes, we were really late to the family Thanksgiving gathering. But the dinner ended up being delayed by a faulty oven (for a very long time, actually), so we didn’t miss anything.

Ah, the holiday season. A time of love and joy and peace on Earth. A time for family and friends to reconnect and annoy each other. And spend money. And travel and decorate and undecorate and toil in the kitchen and spend more money on things that often bring little delight to the recipient or the giver.

Humbug, you say?

No. Me, neither. I mostly love this time of year. But as I count down the final weeks of the year I’ve come to the point where plans for Christmas have swallowed almost everything else in our lives. There is little down time without a to-do list occupying actual attention or tugging subconsciously and invisibly leaking life energy drip by drip.

I will end up loving the season, though the only holiday music I’m tuning in willingly at the moment is the soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is a delight no matter the season.

The year ends in a rush of activity and distraction unlike any period in the previous eleven months. It takes some effort to maintain discipline and stick with your habits. But I’ve been keeping at it. So far. (I’m about to go take a 10 p.m. walk just to check off my daily mile habit. I don’t want to break the string.)

What if we embraced the chaos of the season, the good and bad deviations from routine, and found opportunities to grow and get stronger. Sticking to a habit when you’re tempted to use the excuse of the busyness of the season to ditch it will give you greater strength for the rest of the year when routines are more consistent.

This holiday season, why not face your family and friends as you never have before? Be as present as you can. Engage in meaningful conversations. Sit at the kids’ table. Ask great questions of the often ignored senior citizens in the family. Try to get the hipster teenager to crack a smile.

Stress will come. Don’t beat yourself up about it, though. Just try to observe and notice it and bring yourself back to the present moment, to some perspective about the stillness of the enduring now, where all is always merry and bright.

Stay strong in these final two weeks of the year. Stick to your good habits. Keep bringing your focus back to how you want to finish this year.

And if you’re on the verge of a George Bailey-esque meltdown. Don’t even think about jumping off a bridge.

“Merry freaking Christmas!” to you all.


App sale: Day One is 99 cents till Dec. 26

One of my favorite and most used apps, Day One, is on sale now through December 26 for only 99 cents. It’s normal price is $4.99.

If you’ve been holding out because you think five bucks is too much to spend on any app, here’s your chance. But, really, an app that brings value to your life is easily worth a few bucks, especially considering the silly things we all waste money on that bring no value in return.

Day One, of course, is a journal app, and it’s lovely. It reduced the friction that kept me from ever sticking to a journal habit and actually made it fun to chronicle my life. I treat it like my own private Twitter, that no one sees but me.

As I’ve been looking back over the year recently, Day One has provided a delightful way to remember what has happened and what has mattered most.

Day One is just one of many apps that are on sale right now. Here’s a great list of the great deals from MacStories. I also love Tweetbot, the best Twitter client, and SolarWalk, a gorgeous exploration of the solar system.

Perfectionism is dangerous

David Foster Wallace:

“You know the whole thing about perfectionism – perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. Aiming for perfection is worthwhile, but you can’t be paralyzed by the reality that you will likely never reach the ideal you envision.

Just starting is an accomplishment. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. Most people never beat the resistance that keeps good ideas as ideas only.

But you’ve got to finish, too. It’s hard to draw the line. When is something good enough? At some point, as reasonably close to your ideal as you can get, you’ve just got to ship. Get your art out the door.

The world is in need of more beauty and insight and kindness. Have the courage to take action in spite of the pain falling short of your ideal will cause you.

Audiobook season: Taleb’s Antifragile

antifragile-e1357363505650My reading habit has been weak lately, so I’m going to supplement with audiobooks. I’ve been listening to nothing but podcasts while I drive, so it will be simple to switch in some audiobooks. And there will be plenty of drive time over the next few weeks around the holiday to make good progress.

My first audiobook will be Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. I’ve been intrigued with this book for a while but had only downloaded a sample until today. It’s about the value of disorder and stressors and uncertainty. You don’t want to just be able to withstand difficulty; you want the difficulty to make you stronger. You want to be the opposite of fragile. You want to become antifragile.

I’ve started listening and can already tell that Taleb’s provocative writing style and counterintuitive approach will make for a worthwhile read/listen.

This theme, embracing uncertainty and disorder, is right in my Stoic wheelhouse. A Stoic sage would purposely take on hardship – forgoing food or shelter for a short time, for example – in order to strengthen his appreciation for what he has. A daily cold shower (which is actually part of my morning routine) or regularly visualizing the loss of what you hold most dear are the kinds of strategies a Stoic might pursue to steel himself and strengthen his character.

I’m looking forward to seeing how well a challenging topic like this takes hold by listening rather than reading.

Always have a poet in your pocket.

John Adams advised his son to “always have a poet in your pocket”, to be prepared to make good use of found reading time. With our technology, we’ve got no good excuse for not always having quality information at hand. Whether it’s a conventional book or e-book or audiobook, fill your mind with wisdom and insight and occasional doses of contrariness from smart people. And if you get stuck in a rut of not finding time to sit and read, give an audiobook a chance.

Less, but better

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“Less, but better” was the design philosophy of the iconic Dieter Rams, whose work has inspired some of our greatest creators, including, and especially, Apple.

Focus on the essential. Eliminate the inessential. In your work, in your relationships, in your life. Go for quality over quantity. (Of course, quantity can lead to quality.)

Emptiness has energy. Clutter sucks energy.

Simplify. Hone. Get rid of what doesn’t add value.

We are living in a time of sensory overload. Harmony lies beyond the overwhelming complexity and distraction of too much. Instead of trying to do it all and have it all, do less, better.

Three weeks left in 2014: Incremental change you can believe in

december-31stThere are only three weeks left in 2014. (By the way, I say “twenty-fourteen”. You? It’s saving just a single syllable, I know, but it feels less unwieldy than saying “two-thousand-fourteen”. And no one ever said “Let’s party like it’s one-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-nine”.)

I’ve been counting down to the end of the year in an attempt to finish strong, to end the year with momentum rather than in a carb-fueled haze of regret. I’ve been grooving some new habits into my daily routine and building my days around them. I wake up and check my Habit List app first thing and know I’ve got to check off those habits I’ve chosen for the day. And it’s been a success so far. I’ve transformed my mornings by rising early and meditating daily. (This habit is the one that has the potential for the greatest impact over the long term. I’m starting to get what a game-changer meditation can be.) I’m walking at least a mile every day. I’ve stuck to my push-ups routine. And here I am posting every day.

Granted, this is over a fairly short period of time. But as the new year approaches, I’m now excited about the possibility of building habits and routines to stick with over an entire year and seeing where that gets me. I can see the power of just plugging away at a habit or a simple routine without worrying about some distant, possibly arbitrary, goal. And then I imagine looking up months from now and being surprised at the transformation.

Doing a small thing consistently over a long period of time can lead to a big change in a way that trying to cram big things into a short time never will.



Empty desk, clear mind


I used to be a messy-desk guy, and proud of it. I wanted to be like Indiana Jones and project cool amidst chaos, as if “I’m making this up as I go” like any other superhero. As my work responsibilities grew and family life began to take priority, though, I found I was juggling too much in my head too often, and looking at piles wasn’t helping. I got things done, but probably not as well as I could have and at some cost to my peace of mind.

So, I converted. I went over to the clean-desk side. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) became my bible for organizing my life. I completely changed my approach to work and personal tasks. Lessons from that epic book still resonate. I’m wired now to keep defaulting to an empty desk and empty email in-box. I can stray for a while but then find a nagging unease underlying my mood. “What’s off?” I wonder. Ah. Disorder has crept in, and piles on my desk or working too often from my email in-box are the cues to take action and impose order again.

I used to do a weekly Friday review as suggested in the GTD philosophy. I would put it on my calendar each week. That made sure I regularly corralled loose ends and kept order. I’ve gotten away from that habit and need a revival. Friday is a great day for a weekly review. You can then go into the weekend having dumped and processed the mental load of the work week and be more open to the rest of your life.

Daily and weekly rituals for tidying your life can give you clarity and allow you focus on what is most essential. Cut the clutter. Eliminate the inessential. Clean your desk. Point your life toward what matters most, which may be obscured if there are piles in the way, literally or in your mind.

The courage of humility

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Accepting uncertainty and your own ignorance is the way – the way to being an authentic human and living a true and courageous life.

Those who seem to have it all together are probably just faking it, wearing that mask of certitude to hide their fear. It takes courage to be humble and acknowledge your real place in the grand scheme, in the really big picture.

Know that you don’t know and clear your mind of the clutter of your fixed opinions and prefab answers. Make your way to the beginner’s mind where there are many possibilities.



Blue sky every day


I have been following Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace meditation program for two weeks now, and I can see how beneficial this practice is. Andy regular refers to meditation as “training the mind”, and I’m getting that sense of it, of training and practice and skill development, from just my two week habit.

I have already found myself occasionally directing my attention during daily activities to what I experience when I meditate, noticing the busy-ness and distraction of my mind and bringing the focus back to my body and my breath.

Mindfulness teachers talk about the blue sky always being there even when obstructed by clouds. If you were in a plane you could fly above the clouds and see that the blue sky is there and unaffected by whatever clouds are below it.

Even when your mind is full or anxious or clouded with discouraging thoughts, the blue sky is still there. Wait and watch. The clouds will pass, if even for a moment, and you can see the blue sky. There it is, every day.

Kindness is invincible

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This from a man who had more power than anyone alive at the time, the emperor of Rome with armies and riches and total authority. Easy for him to say, I suppose. Of course, this was written in his private journal for no one’s benefit but his own. Marcus was the man.

Sincere kindness, not for show or put on in some way, is strong and resilient and ultimately persuasive and even healing. Marcus goes on to say this about kindness:

“What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight—if you get the chance—correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this—or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately—with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.”

I am not impressed with those who try to exert their authority or express righteous indignation or intimidate their way into getting their way. Give me authentic, wholehearted kindness above all.

Showing my work: Mind map for the win

In the regular attempt to show my work and be transparent about the imperfect and messy nature of creation, here’s a peek into my planning for our new staff kickoff this weekend.

We will spend four hours on Sunday brainwashing our new staff about our mission and values and the way we do our work. And we will begin getting to know each other and begin building a sense of community. I’ve done this kind of event many times, and it’s one of my favorite things to do every year.


I went to the big whiteboard in my office (the bigger the whiteboard the more room for possibilities, right?) to draft out the agenda and got stuck right away. I know in general what we’re going to do, but I was trying to assign start times to each part of the agenda. So, I just stared blankly for a while. Then, I remembered that a linear approach regularly stymies me, and I erased what I had and started over with a mind map. Mind maps allow you to ditch lists and hierarchies and let ideas flow more freely, unconstrained by any external sense of order.

Once I started over on my agenda by mind-mapping it first, the ideas came quickly and easily, and possibilities I hadn’t considered before suddenly appeared. And once the ideas were all out there and easy to visualize, I could then begin putting the ideas into some order.

If you’re stuck planning a project or an event or a night out, even, try mind-mapping it. Go crazy, with no restraints on the ideas. This method can help you see connections and possibilities that a conventional outline or list might never lead you to.


Showing my work: Connecting a new team to the mission

We just selected nineteen college students to join our work team, and I’m getting ready for their first training session on Sunday. We always begin with a big picture focus. I feel strongly that Why comes before How. If you want a sense of purpose and a clear mission for everyone on your team (and you do), then begin with the big picture and hone in, as precisely as you can, on what’s the point, why you do what you do.

It seems every organization has a mission statement, but if you’re in an organization, do you know what yours is? Most are filled with P.R. jargon that seems far removed from the reality of your work. If you can’t clearly state your team’s purpose in a sentence or two, there is a lack of focus and clarity at the top.

So, when we bring on new team members we begin with an examination of our primary purpose as an organization. And it’s healthy for us to revisit this each year with returning staff as well and keep reminding ourselves of the big picture and the compelling reasons why we do what we do.

I’m working on slides for this weekend’s kickoff meeting for the new staff. I’m showing my work in progress here to remind myself that I can’t just repeat what I’ve done before. I’ve been tweaking the design and in the process rethinking the ideas and the flow. And it’s so worthwhile to take something you think you’ve got down and take a fresh look at it and be willing to discard and edit and redo. Every organization could benefit from regular revivals and periodic rethinks of just why you do what you do.

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Four weeks left in 2014: Meditation


December 31 is four weeks from today. I’ve been counting down toward a strong finish to the year. I was tired of writing off the last weeks of the year and digging myself into a hole that I then need to New-Years-resolution my way out off.

I’ve been establishing some habits, because, of course, systems are better than goals. The Habit List app has played a big role in my commitment to these new habits. It’s compelling me to not break the string. I get out of bed early and start my day checking the list and making sure I can check off each habit – push-ups, walking a mile, writing, and meditation – before the day is done.

The newest habit I added is daily meditation. I’m using the Headspace app, which guides your meditation and makes it easy for a beginner to get going. It’s been a delight, and I’ve moved past the ten free sessions and subscribed for the year. It costs a little more than $6 per month to have access to the full program. The first ten days sold me, and I’m counting on sticking with it.

With just four weeks left in the year, I’m feeling both physically and emotionally stronger than I did at the beginning of the year. And that’s with me just getting started a few weeks ago.

Leverage these last few weeks of 2014 to get better at something. Don’t muddle through the holiday season postponing your attempt at awesomeness till January.

2014 books

I’ve seen a couple of book lists pop up as the year-end and holiday shopping and reading seasons are upon us.

Here’s Maria Popova’s list of 2014’s Best Books on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully.

The New York Times has a list of 100 Notable Books of 2014.

The books I’ve read this year that I finished and that I recommend:

Non-fiction –

Meditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays – Yes, I’m reading from this at least weekly if not daily.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Fiction –

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson



Imagining a future on the frontier beyond Earth

This gorgeous short film by Erik Wernquist imagines humans exploring deep into our solar system. The images are stunning in their beauty and in the vision they offer of humans venturing to the frontier beyond our own planet. And there’s Carl Sagan’s voice and poetic words. So good.


Why should we even dream of such ventures? Because we are human, and we’ve been wandering and searching and exploring from the beginning. We journey. It’s what we do, and it’s how we are wired. And in journeying we find ourselves and attempt to make sense of our place.

The sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled… The open road still softly calls. –Carl Sagan

Imagine what it would take for even a small portion of this filmmaker’s vision to become a reality. Epic, gargantuan investments of brainpower and resources and will, right? But, remember, the previous generation sent men to the moon. That was back when computers filled rooms. They fit in our pockets now.

Can’t we fit dreams like this into our future and honor our nature as wanderers? If our physical survival doesn’t depend on it (and it might), at least the survival of our questing spirit and restless curiosity ultimately may be at stake.

This may be centuries away, but it’s on us to point ourselves in that direction.

via Kottke

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