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Conversations aren’t contests: Good listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak

Adam Grant recently tweeted a link to this Harvard Business Review article, What Great Listeners Actually Do. It’s based on research on what truly effective listeners consistently do.

Excellent listeners don’t just listen quietly, nod occasionally, and summarize what was just said. Instead, they engage and ask thoughtful, encouraging questions. The research suggests being a trampoline, not a sponge:

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

It’s not about simply politely waiting your turn to speak while giving the impression that you’re trying to understand the other person.

I know I think I’m pretty good at nodding and seeming engaged while in my brain I’m crafting what I’m going to say when it’s my turn to talk.

I have the best conversations, though, when I’m genuinely present, when I listen to truly understand without much thought given to being understood myself.

Most of us probably think we are better listeners than we actually are. What most of us are good at, though, is appearing to be good listeners.

Listening takes effort and discipline. Next time you’re face to face with someone, ramp up your focus. Tune in as closely as you can to the other person. Ask excellent questions as you attempt to get at what they mean and where they’re coming from.

Be a trampoline that enhances the energy they’re giving you and takes you both to a higher level of understanding and connection.

 

Relax already: David Letterman on ego and perspective

David Letterman reflects on no longer having his television show:

“We did this television show—my friends and I—for a very long time. It’s probably like anyone else’s professional pursuit. When you are doing it for so long, and for each day—I have always likened it to running a restaurant—because you get response to the day’s endeavor immediately. Either from the audience or the ratings, but you know as early as the next day how you did.

And because of this introspection, you believe that what you are doing is of great importance and that it is affecting mankind wall-to-wall. And then when you get out of it you realize, oh, well, that wasn’t true at all. (laughter) It was just silliness. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and I realized, geez, I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.”*

When you are in the middle of a thing—your job, an organization, or some silly drama—it seems gigantic and so obviously important.

But if you could zoom out and view it from some distance of time or space, that thing that seemed like a big deal would be revealed for what it is—a tiny blip, a miniscule drop, an otherwise insignificant thing in the vast scheme of all the things.

Not that when you’re in it you shouldn’t give it your full attention and your best effort.

Just know that everything changes, and every thing, ultimately, is quite tiny in the context of all that is.

The thing that stresses you or weighs you down as you trudge home or as you start your day is probably not as big as you imagine.

This, too, no matter how important it may seem in the moment, shall pass.

The center of the universe is everywhere, but you are not the center of the universe.

Relax already.

 

Humans are the worst, and the best

Often, when I hear some terrible story about what someone has done to someone else, I exclaim to my wife, “Humans are the worst!”

And because we are supposed to be a rational, conscious being with a conscience, we really ought to expect better behavior from our fellow homo sapiens.

In the big scheme of things, though, we humans are just toddlers on the world stage.

The dinosaurs ruled the planet for millions of years.

Modern humans have been around a mere 200,000 years, and we’ve been at the top of the food chain for only a very short while.

Our direct ancestors were just another species of animal (of course, we still are merely animals), and not a very imposing or impressive one, for most of our timeline.

We didn’t figure out agriculture until 10,000 years ago.

And science didn’t begin to take hold until just 500 years ago.

Our big brains evolved into this wondrous asset that empowered us to conquer the world and write poetry and experience awe and joy and laughter. It also enabled us to suffer and inflict suffering like no other species on the planet.

Certainly, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.

But it has been a short time. We’re new here.

We are only now beginning to find our footing. We will stumble and go backwards here and there and routinely make a mess of things.

But we are not who we used to be. In spite of the headlines, the reality is that humans have never been more at peace with each other than they are now. (That may say more about how primitive and brutal we have been than about how enlightened we have become.)

If we don’t destroy ourselves before we get it together, we surely will eventually get it together.

Here’s hoping the better angels of our nature mature quicker and evolve faster than the parts of us that give our species a bad name.

Humans are the worst, but we have it in us to be the best.

You are the message

“Your kids… They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” –Jim Henson

via Austin Kleon

What you consistently do and how you act, that’s your message.

What you say is pointless if it’s not in sync with who you are.

Even kids—especially kids—can see through empty words.

A student, not a teacher

The great Greek philosopher Socrates is a character in the novel I’m reading, and in it he refers to himself as a student, not a teacher.

The best teachers and authors I’ve encountered have had that mindset. You are learning with them, not just from them.

The wiser you become, the more you realize how little you know.

We all should consider ourselves perpetual students, willing and eager to keep learning and pushing out the ever growing boundary of our ignorance.

We will find more opportunities to awaken possibility in ourselves and in others by humbly continuing to search and inquire and reexamine as a student of life than by trying to pose as a master.

 

 

Current fiction: Pressfield’s Tides of War


Non-fiction by day, fiction by night. 

I enjoyed Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, his excellent novel of the battle of Thermopylae. 

His non-fiction masterpiece, The War of Art, remains a key influence in my approach to the creative life and is one of a few books that merits rereading regularly. 

Fiction has been missing from my life recently, so I’m embarking on this story set in ancient Greece. A novel at night is a great way to end the day and nurture your imagination. 

Obama’s greatest legacy: Family

From a Washington Post article I read on Father’s Day about President Obama’s remarkable commitment to his family:

Soon after being inaugurated, Obama established what New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor has called “an unusual rule for a president.” As he informed all his aides, he vowed to have dinner with his family five nights a week. That left just two nights a week for out-of-town fundraisers or dinners with fellow politicians.

At 6:30, Obama and his wife sit down with the girls for a family dinner without any outsiders — not even Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who typically retreats to her own “home” on the third floor of the White House.

The evening meal, observed Obama’s former body-man Reggie Love, was treated “like a meeting in the Situation Room. There’s a hard stop before that dinner.” While aides sometimes call him back to work at 8:30 or 9, they rarely dare to go upstairs to bother him during the sacred dinner hour.

On most days, Obama also eats breakfast with his daughters. And as part of his commitment to his girls, Obama has been reluctant to visit Camp David, since various school activities typically require the youngsters to be in Washington.

Obama is extremely proud of his résumé as a parent. He boasts of having read aloud with Malia all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series; in his first fall in office, he also managed to read all of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” to Sasha. But performing as a head of household did not come easily to him. As this supremely self-confident man acknowledged in 2006, “It is in my capacities as a husband and a father that I entertain the most doubt.”

Remarkable!

Even in his unimaginably demanding role as President of the United States, Obama created a system for prioritizing what is most important to him—his family.

If we know that quality relationships are the key to a happy life (and they are), why shouldn’t we all build systems, habits, and routines that prioritize our connection with family and friends?

Whether it’s nightly dinner with your kids, a standing date night with your spouse, or regular meetings with your closest friends, build barriers around what may be the most significant commitment of your attention, the time you devote to the relationships that matter most.

You are not running a country. If Obama can do it, you can, too.

In summer…

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Image by **Mary**

It’s day one of summer.

And it’s day one of my commitment to seize the season and make the most of the warm weather and longer days.

Work less. Play more.

Make a list of adventures that you can only take on in summer.

Read in a hammock. Walk barefoot in the grass. Go jump in the lake.

Go places. Do things. Daydream.

Eat real food. Cook it over real fire. Have real, face-to-face conversations with people you love.

Embrace your primal nature and your connection to the natural world and to your senses.

Life is more radiant and more visceral in summer. Don’t sit it out as you tune out in your artificial escapes.

Make contact with your life right here, right now. In summer.

“‘Cause a little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about.” –John Mayer, Wildfire

Noise, noise, noise, noise, noise!

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So much noise right now.

There’s always something to read or watch or click, and most of it adds no real value while taking up precious space in our brain and often adding unnecessary worry and stress.

Information overload is a thing, for me at least.

Here comes the weekend, though, and a chance to step away from the stream of chatter that is hard to escape during the week.

Put the phone down, EJ.

Be quiet. Be bored.

Let your “streams” and “feeds” go untended.

These glowing screens are a modern miracle, but they can too easily divert our focus from what is right here, right now.

The world will go on just fine without your sharing or liking or commenting on whatever combination of one’s and zeroes might fly by in your absence.

Play. Breathe. See. Listen. Feel.

Step away from the noise. Step into real life.

Have a happy analog, tactile, unplugged weekend.

Kitchen tools list, updated

My sister-in-law is getting married later this year. Knowing I’m the primary cook in the family and knowing I’m a little too obsessed with finding the right tool, whether in technology or in the kitchen, she asked me to give her a list of essential kitchen tools for her wedding registry.

I was too happy to oblige, and I thought others might find this list useful as well.

I am no chef, and my skills are rudimentary at best, but I do care a lot about using quality tools that get the job done and are a delight to use.

The list below is made up mostly of tools I own and use, though some just represent categories, and the particular maker is less important. If you’re setting up a kitchen or want to expand your collection of tools, you might find something useful here:

  • Chef’s knife – You don’t need a lot of knives. Most cooks really only use two or three on a daily basis. But the Chef’s knife is the #1 kitchen tool. This Misen knife won’t be available till later this summer, but I’ve preordered one for myself already. It gets rave reviews as having the quality of a $150 knife for less than half that price. A workhorse chef’s knife that I use almost every day is the Victorinox Fibrox. It’s $45 and is very popular in restaurant kitchens. If you want to splurge a bit (and why shouldn’t you on the most important tool in the kitchen?), you can’t go wrong with a Wusthof ($117 German blade) or a Shun ($140 Japanese blade).
  • Paring knife
  • Steak knives – I like that the edge on this one is straight, not serrated. These won’t mangle that gorgeous steak you’ve grilled.
  • Cutting board – Our main cutting board is a work of art (it was a gift) and is so impressively heavy and rugged. It’s as beautiful as it is functional. Oil your wooden cutting boards periodically to keep the wood in great condition. We also have an Oxo cutting board. It’s good to have two or three. I cut meats on the polypropylene boards and everything else on the wooden board. Bamboo boards are a good choice, too.
  • Sharpening steel for knives – Steels don’t actually sharpen knives. They do straighten the edge back into place, though, and keep knives sharp. It’s good to edge your knife before or after every use. You will need to periodically have your knives professionally sharpened.
  • Magnetic strip for knife storage – The best way to store knives is on a magnetic strip mounted to the kitchen wall. It’s best not to keep knives in a drawer. And a block takes up counter space.
  • Cast iron skillet – Lodge is the most common brand you’ll find. But I’m excited about this Kickstarter project, the Field Skillet, which promises a lighter, smoother cast iron skillet. Pre-ordered.
  • Enameled cast iron skillet – Comes in a lot of colors and is my go-to for so many tasks—sautéing, chicken parmesan, frittatas, pancakes…
  • Oxo tongs – I use these often, and in all three sizes.
  • Microplane graters – The fine and coarse graters get used almost every day in our house. (Pre-grated cheese is wrong in many ways. More expensive, coated in starch to keep it from sticking, less fresh, and less delicious. We keep a block of parmigiano-reggiano and use it regularly. My 11-year-old loves it and is sadly disappointed whenever she encounters what passes for parmesan in other kitchens.)
  • Salad spinner
  • Turner and spatula
  • Grill spatula
  • Weber grill – We have a gas grill, too, but I use this classic Weber charcoal grill more often.
  • Weber chimney starter – Lighter fluid is not necessary, nor is pre-soaked charcoal.
  • Coffee grinder – Coffee people only use whole beans, freshly ground, of course. This is the grinder we have, but the Baratza has a bit more acclaim.
  • Garlic press – Unitaskers are not ideal, but this garlic press is a beast and one of my favorite tools.
  • Whisks – You’ll want a small and a large whisk.
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Oxo measuring cup set – Love these. I remember my mom first seeing one of these in my house years ago and being so delighted by the clever design. I gave her mine on the spot.
  • Half sheet pans – We have at least four of these. So useful, for food prep as well as baking and roasting.
  • Thermometer – This is THE thermometer to get if you’re willing to splurge. One of my most relied on gadgets, especially for grilling. $100
  • Dish towels – We use these lint-free surgical towels in the kitchen. Lots of color options.
  • Pepper mill – Never use pre-ground pepper when you can get 100 times more flavor by grinding it fresh.
  • Pizza stone – We use this for homemade pizza, and my wife also uses it for some of her cookies.
  • Simple Human open kitchen trash can – One of my favorite purchases in the past year. Who knew a trash can could be so delightful? It looks terrific, and the fact that it doesn’t have a lid turns out to be crucially awesome. Lids add a layer of friction to throwing something away, and lids get dirty.

 

It’s called “giving” a speech

I saw this tweet today from Chris Anderson, who is the TED Talks guy and knows a bit about what makes for an effective speech. (He has a new book out on that very topic.)

Instead of approaching a speaking opportunity with the focus on you, the speaker, focus instead on the audience and what you hope to give them.

It’s not about what you want or what you can accomplish or your agenda or the applause or laughs or approval you hope to receive.

What’s your gift to the audience? How can you share something that meets their needs, that just might awaken a new possibility in them?

This, of course, applies well beyond just speech-making.

Whatever your art or your craft or even just your pay-the-bills kind of job, consider the gift you can offer with it, how you could create something meaningful for someone else. See if that perspective doesn’t transform your work and maybe your own sense of purpose.

Streaks App

Earlier today I downloaded Streaks, an app to track habits you want to keep.

My habit-keeping habit has been abysmal this year, and I needed a fresh approach.

I have used Habit List to good effect in the past, but I’m thinking a shiny new tool might rejuvenate my commitment to routines that make my life better. 

John Gruber of Daring Fireball recommended Streaks recently. I took a look, and it looks ideal for what I want to do—track my follow through on just a few key daily habits. It has a gorgeous and simple design and looks like a fun app to use. 

Not an hour after I purchased Streaks, I saw on Twitter that the app just won a design award from Apple today as one of the best apps of the year. 

I’ll give Streaks a go and try to revitalize some habits and revitalize my commitment to living a more excellent life. 

Don’t find yourself. Create yourself.

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A conversation I heard yesterday reminded me that so many of us think there is some inner kernel inside that is the “true” version of ourselves. If only we keep digging and searching we will eventually, hopefully, uncover what or who we are somehow meant to be.

It’s my experience, though, that the search to find yourself is futile.

There’s no need to wait and ponder and hope that your ideal calling will be revealed to you somehow.

Instead, get busy doing something. Take action. Take a shot, even if you’re not completely sure it’s the best action to take. You only know by doing.

Pick a path you don’t hate, and give it a go. Follow what intrigues you until it doesn’t.

Craft the life you want. Become who you want to be.

 

Don’t wobble

Sit, sit. Walk, walk. Don’t wobble. –Zen proverb

Kevin Kelly shared this wisdom in his most recent interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast.

When you sit, fully sit.

When you walk, make walking the thing.

When you’re in conversation with another human being, let all else fall away except for that conversation.

Don’t wobble. Don’t drift from the thing you’re doing to give your attention to something else.

I’m not going to pull this off with any kind of consistency. I wobble. A lot.

But keeping aware of the intention to be present with where I am and what I’m doing is a start.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on leaving college with “stuff” already created

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the man of the moment with Hamilton’s incredible success.

This Rolling Stone feature sheds some light on his drive.

He has written his way to the top. Like the character he portrays on stage, Alexander Hamilton, Miranda is a prolific writer.

Here’s Miranda in the Rolling Stone interview talking about his creative output while he was a college student:

I finished college with a ton of stuff written. I was painfully aware of the financial sacrifices my parents were making so that I could go to college, so I was not going to just leave with a B.A. in something. I was going to leave with stuff. I wrote a show every year of college. Not for credit, but because I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A. So in that way, I’m very Hamilton-esque, in that I’m aware of both time and of the incredible opportunity that I’m lucky to have, and not wanting to squander either.

“I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A….” Incredible.

He didn’t wait on a degree or permission or a paying gig to start doing what he wanted to do.

He acted as if, as if he already was who he wanted to be.

What if we just started doing what we think we want to be doing without waiting to be picked or to qualify somehow.

Miranda didn’t wait. He’s a smashing success not because he paid his dues or bought into the system or followed a path others laid out. 

He made it big because he got busy doing the work that was calling to him as soon as it called.

He picked himself. 

 

Writing that moves: Posnanski makes like Maddux

My morning in this lovely AirBnB cottage near Venice Beach has been made reading a couple of Joe Posnanski’s pieces. (This west coast time zone had me up early, watching my kids sleep as we continue on our California vacation.)

Posnanski is a sportswriter, but it’s his stuff about fatherhood and family that gets to me. 

He wrote most recently about taking his teenage daughter to see the musical Hamilton. (Go read that piece now. It’s so, so good.)

I’ve never been a big fan of Broadway musicals. I had been underwhelmed years ago by Cats (hated it) and Phantom (meh). But we took our young daughters to see Wicked earlier this year, and I was wowed and truly moved. 

Then I heard some early hoopla about Hamilton and was intrigued enough to listen to the soundtrack. I’ve since listened to that soundtrack repeatedly and can quote key lyrics. And I’ve begun reading the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create a hip-hop infused stage production telling the story of an under appreciated founding father. And I know who Lin-Manuel Miranda is and have watched YouTubes of his commencement speeches and his beatboxing with Emma Watson. And I know I will regret not having seen the original cast perform Hamilton live. 

And Posnanski’s endearing story of taking his daughter to see this show resonated with me as an admirer of all things Hamilton right now and as a dad of daughters. I got all the feels and could imagine sitting in that theater with my older daughter and making a memory that endures.

I then read an older piece of his about taking his daughter to Harry Potter world in Florida. Also a delight and evocative of my experiences with my daughters. 

Posnanski’s writing sneaks up on the reader. He’s just casually unspooling the threads of a story. It’s conversational and earnest. And then—Pow!—without warning you feel something. You’re moved. It’s clear he’s been moved, and he takes you with him. 

The great Braves pitcher, Greg Maddux, my favorite baseball player, pitched kind of like that. He didn’t have jaw-dropping stuff. His fastball was average. He wasn’t imposing. But he was an artist on the mound. He was subtle and cerebral and his pitches moved in surprising, yet strategic ways. It wasn’t power or speed, it was movement and careful, precise placement that was thought through before the batter ever approached the plate. The pitch counts and the innings would unspool innocuously with lots of balls in play and runners scattered here and there. And then, all of a sudden, you had a complete-game shutout. 

Maddux was more of a craftsman than an artist. But the parallel to mastery of a hard skill seems apt to me. 

Movement. Artful placement. Beautiful stuff.  

The key in writing, I think, is to feel something that truly moves you and find a way to express it in such a way that your reader feels that same thing. 

Seems simple, but so few pull it off well. 

Sunday night Stoic: Town mouse

Meditations 11.22:

“The town mouse and the country mouse. Distress and agitation of the town mouse.”

I spent the day with my family touring parts of Los Angeles. It was a town mouse kind of day. Delightful, touristy fun. But definitely a town mouse kind of town.

Showing my work: The Good Life, San Diego

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I’m giving the opening talk at my professional association’s annual conference in San Diego next Tuesday.

I’m not ready. Yet.

I’ve had a theme in my mind for a few months now, but the ideas are just now coming together.

When I’ve been asked to do these kinds of conference talks, I’ve been fortunate to be given the freedom to talk about what I choose, whatever I think would be of interest to this audience.

I do begin with the audience in mind. If I were in their seats, what would I want to hear? How would I want to feel? What ought to be said at this event, at this time?

But I’m also channeling whatever key idea has been churning in my brain recently, and having an audience is an opportunity to explore that idea in a structured way.

My aim is to awaken possibility and to send my audience out better than they were before they walked in.

I don’t know how effective I’ve been at transforming audiences, but I know that making the attempt to convey something meaningful to others certainly transforms me.

If you’re given a chance to express yourself, to speak or write or connect with others in any way, take it. It might make a difference for someone else, and it will make a difference for you.

*The screenshot of my desktop today shows my work in progress on this talk, and includes the apps Keynote, iA Writer, and Notes. I collected ideas in Notes on my phone, then began connecting them together with a narrative written in iA Writer. Lastly, I create slides in Keynote.

 

Tribe: Sebastian Junger’s book on what’s missing from modern society


When something is sparking your curiosity or rolling about in your subconscious, you start seeing it appear in your everyday life as though the universe is in sync with you. 

For example, when you buy a new car, or have your eye on one, all of sudden you start seeing that particular car everywhere. Your brain is simply more attuned to what you’ve chosen to focus on. 

Lately I’ve been exploring the significance of community and connection and meaningful relationships as keys to a good life. And stories and articles and books that propel that theme even further keep popping up on my radar. 

I just came across (and downloaded) Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe. His TED Talk on the topic is compelling, and his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast is fantastic. 

The premise is that millions of years of evolution shaped humans into social animals, and tribal creatures particularly. Our modern society is deficient in some of the basic tribal dynamics that are necessary for us to be fully functional and to more healthfully deal with the traumas of life. 

It is all about relationships

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