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Hard work, hardly working

“What you choose to work on, and who you choose to work with, are far more important than how hard you work.” –Naval Ravikant

Hard work overrated?

Yes, especially if the “what” and “who” are undervalued.

Hard work and efficiency are actually detrimental if you’re heading in the wrong direction with the wrong people.

Get the who, what, and why right and the work won’t seem hard at all.

(By the way, Ravikant is a great Twitter follow—@naval.)

The function and duty of a quality human being

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.” –Bruce Lee

You never arrive. But keep going nonetheless.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

Get a move on

Meditations 9.29:

“Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”

Do your work. Don’t make a big a deal out of it or fret about whether you’re getting the credit you deserve or making a big enough impact.

Face what’s right in front of you and give it your best. Then move on without regret or second-guessing.

(“And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic…” Ha!)

Work and play

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” –Arnold Toynbee

Flow states are the blissful blur that line is calling for.

“Happiness is absorption.” –T.E. Lawrence

Kurosawa on peaking at 80

I make a point in a talk I do for student groups that there’s no hurry to make your mark or to “hit it big”.

There seems to be more pressure than ever for young people to not only have their career figured out right out of college, but to be rich and famous by the time they’re, say, 30. Crazy.

I challenge these 20-year-olds to instead aim to be awesome by the time they’re 60.

This advice goes over with a resounding thud every time I share it. But I’m convinced that you will make better decisions and actually grow and improve faster by choosing the long game instead of trying to conquer the world in your youth.

Even DaVinci’s first great success, The Last Supper, didn’t come till he was almost 50 years old.

Recently I saw this letter from a then 77-year-old Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese filmmaker, wishing a happy 70th birthday to fellow filmmaker Ingmar Bergman:

Remarkable. At 77, he was expecting his best work was still ahead of him.

You don’t have to have it figured out. You won’t ever. Do your best where you are. Be excellent in just the next five minutes. Don’t force it or rush past this moment or compare yourself to some arbitrary or pointless standard set by others.

The arc of your life, should you be fortunate to have it counted in many decades, could bend gently and satisfyingly towards a kind of excellence you can’t even imagine from your current vantage point.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” –Henry David Thoreau

Happiness happens

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” –Victor Frankl

Happiness happens.

You don’t catch it. It catches you.

Pursue, instead, a cause bigger than yourself. Focus on what you have to offer, not on what you want to receive.

Aiming to bring happiness to others is a more direct path to your own happiness than trying to get what you think you want.

Choices

“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” –Jerzy Gregorek?

Choose wisely.

Tell less, ask more

A haiku from the author Michael Bungay Stanier summarizing his book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever:

“Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.”

I need to print this and put it in a frame on my desk always in sight when I’m talking to people in my office. I’m prone to jump straight to what I think are solutions or helpful stories.

“That reminds me of a story…”

I’m becoming that guy.

Default to listening, not talking. Sit out the awkward gaps in conversation and wait.

Ask, “What’s on your mind?” Then keep at it by following up with “And what else?”

Leadership and friendship and human connection of any sort are all better served by sincere efforts to understand instead of attempting to be understood.

A calling

My wife has a knack for making things beautiful and making beautiful things. It’s her gift and a noble calling. Even her handwriting is artful. You should see the cakes she decorates. She cares about the small details and delights in delighting others.

I love that about her. Making things beautiful is her calling. It’s not her job. She’s not a professional artist, though her artistry infuses all she does.

We all need a calling, whether it aligns with a career or not. A gift to give, a contribution to make. What will be your life?

Getting what you want

A tweet I saw today made me aware of this poem, written when the author was dying of cancer:

Late Fragment

By Raymond Carver

And did you get what

you wanted from life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the Earth.

Simple. Direct. Poignant.

Isn’t this what we really want?

To love and to be loved.

All the rest is distraction.

The only competition that matters

“Oh my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” –Pindar

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” –Seneca

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The only competition that matters is the one between who you are now and who you become.

Only you

You have to live with the notion of, “If I don’t write this, no one’s going to write it. If I die, this idea dies with me. –Lin Manuel Miranda

What potentially great idea are you keeping trapped within by your hesitation, caution, or fear?

What problem can you help solve if only you’d take action?

With no expectation of raving, Hamiltonesque success, just start.

“Who am I?” you say.

“What do I know?”

An excellent attitude, I say. Humility becomes you. Indeed, each of us has only a tiny role to play in the really big scheme of things, and we have no way of seeing ahead of time just how much good, if any, our efforts can do.

But your contribution, no matter how small, is uniquely yours. If you don’t take action, if you don’t show up, you forfeit your chance to make a dent in the universe that only you can make.

Start even if you don’t know where your idea can go, even if it seems silly or pointless or impossible. (A Broadway musical about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton? Surely, that’s going nowhere. Getting arrested for not giving up your seat on the bus? How will that make a difference?)

Imagine a critical mass of people actively engaging with the world, offering their unique gifts and ideas, actively fulfilling their potential, doing what they can to move us all forward.

Empty yourself. Only you can make your contribution. Don’t leave the stage without playing your part.

How the world works

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.” –Joseph Tussman

We are not strangers in a strange land. Sure, mystery is all around. But we are solidly a part of it—emerging from it, not dropped into it.

A recurring lesson from sources as far flung as Taoism and Stoicism is the notion that an excellent life is one that is in accord with nature, in harmony with the reality of the way the world works.

Observe how the natural world moves with ease, how nature unfolds without fussing and straining.

Don’t force. Don’t resist. Have a beginner’s mind. Let the world teach you.

Road trip feast

On a family road trip, hungry for a quick dinner, thinking we’re stuck with fast food…

And Google leads us to this gem of a pizza place just off the interstate in Greensboro, NC—Cugino Forno.

According to the menu at least, the wood-fired ovens are made from “the volcanic sand of Mt. Vesuvius”. Pretty authentic, I say.

And it was still fast food. Took only 90 seconds to cook each pizza. Volcanic oven, indeed.

After three weeks of fairly strict low-carb, this was an excellent way to break the string.

To live in the hearts of those we love

Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 76. I haven’t been able to celebrate with her in a dozen years. But I haven’t stopped celebrating her.

She was the joy of our whole extended family. The heartbeat, the rock, the radiant smile, the mischievous twinkle, the remarkable kindness.

I’m not one to dwell or cling or feel sorry for myself. Life breaks your heart. If your heart hasn’t been broken yet, you haven’t lived long enough. For me, I prefer to face the heartbreak square on and accept it and use it to appreciate, celebrate even, what I had and will continue to hold dear.

My youngest daughter was born two years after my mom died. She didn’t know her, but she knows about her and refers to her regularly.

We still tell stories of my mom and smile and laugh. I still wear a glimmer of her features on my face and say things in the way she would say them. I aim still to delight her and make her proud.

Those we have loved live on in us.

The epitaph we finally chose for my mom’s grave marker:

TO LIVE IN THE HEARTS

OF THOSE WE LOVE IS

NOT TO DIE

How noble, how excellent to live a life that endures beyond your span, that resonates into generations unborn. A life marked by love ultimately will end up breaking hearts. And enlarging them and fortifying them and comforting them for years to come. A hint of immortality awaits those who live lives of love.

On reading more books

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My wife and I got new furniture for our bedroom last year. Instead of a traditional night stand, I got a lovely round table that I envisioned as a home to the stack of books I’m actively reading or planning to read soon.

Unfortunately, my spacious bedside table is running out of space. I keep adding books to the now multiple stacks on my table. I’m adding books a lot faster than I’m reading books. And this has become a bit of a concern. It’s not that I’m adding books too fast, though I probably acquire books a bit recklessly. (My philosophy has always been to just get whatever books I’m interested in. No buyer’s remorse.) The problem, though, is I’m not reading at a satisfactory pace.

Sure, my life is relatively full. Family and work keep me on the go, and it seems like there’s not much time left over to sit quietly and read. But reading should be a priority for me. Books have been central to shaping my life. I know that reading challenging books propels me forward in ways that few other activities do.

My internet addled brain, though, has been trained like yours has for quick bursts of reading pleasure. There is immediate resistance to sticking with any kind of long form reading. And there are plenty of shiny objects on the various screens in my life luring me away with the promise of easy and instant reading gratification.

But, it’s a trap. (Insert Admiral Ackbar voice.) The majority of reading we do on devices—status updates from friends, tweets, superficial news articles—does not challenge or stretch our minds in any meaningful way. It puts you in kickback mode and encourages your brain to be passive rather than active. It’s empty calories for your brain.

I want to be intentional about making books an ongoing priority in my daily schedule.

I need a plan.

Recently, I’ve been reading first thing in the morning when I wake up. Even just thirty minutes of reading before I do anything else allows to me make real progress. I knocked out a short biography of Montaigne this way last month, and I’m almost halfway through Pinker’s hefty Enlightenment Now with most of the reading coming before 6:15 AM on weekdays.

I’ll get some reading done at lunch on a few days each week. And I used a quiet Saturday afternoon recently to make headway on a novel. (I try to keep one non-fiction book and one novel going at all times. Non-fiction in the morning and at lunch. The novel is usually my bedtime and weekend reading.)

The thing is, I get up about the same time in the morning as I always do. But instead of clicking through apps (my RSS feed reader, Tweetbot, and email) and wasting the brief quiet I have each morning, now I’m sitting at our dining room table and immediately opening my book to start reading.

Breakfast for my brain.

Early to rise, early to read. More books, more better. That’s the plan.

Big picture thinking

“Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people.” –Nancy Abrams

I need the big picture, the “Why”, the zoomed out view, before I can drill down into the “What” and the “How”.

When I feel like I’m drifting, I remind myself of what a grand story I get to be a part of.

I may be small and insignificant in the big scheme, but I am in the game. I’m alive and aware in a dazzlingly complex and overwhelming mystery of a universe.

The big picture enlarges my perspective and my possibilities if not my ego.

Mr. Lincoln’s epitaph

The most vivid memory I have of visiting Washington, D.C. for the first time when I was a kid is of the Lincoln Memorial.

I was already a Lincoln fan. The little biography about him in my school library was my favorite. Lincoln was my heroic ideal.

But the Lincoln Memorial was the grandest building I had ever seen. The drama of walking up those steps and seeing that statue sitting there was thrilling.

I read and reread the inscription above the statue, and those words got locked into my memory. I could always quote it:

IN THIS TEMPLE

AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE

FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION

THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN

IS ENSHRINED FOREVER.

Balanced. Powerful. Perfect.

I had a framed photograph my dad took of the statue and inscription hanging in my room for years.

But I didn’t know there was a story about the person who wrote that inscription, his commitment to Lincoln, and his fight to get the words included in the monument.

I loved this account of Royal Cortissoz’s epiphany for the epitaph and his commitment to honoring Lincoln and ferociously defending his own artistic vision. He wouldn’t yield to well-meaning attempts at the highest level to edit the inscription. He knew those changes would weaken the beauty and symmetry of his words.

His vision ended up prevailing and being etched into that stone and into the memories of generations who summit those steps.

I’m heading to D.C. next week with my family, and I’m eager to take my daughters up those steps to read those words for themselves. Thank you, Mr. Cortissoz for helping us thank Mr. Lincoln.

Making excellence a habit

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives —choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” –Aristotle

Plan to be excellent. Winging it only takes you so far.

Craft routines and habits that obligate you to take action regularly on your plan.

Determine what’s most important, then be determined in consistently making that your priority.

Be awesome on purpose.

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