Career goal: Spark more smiles

I laughed with delight when I first saw this tweet. 

It made me think fondly of people I know who light up a room with their kindness or humor or enthusiasm. 

And there just aren’t enough people who are like that. 

The thing is, though, everyone could be like that. 

Why so serious, bro? Why so numb to the wonder and the possibilities all around you?

How can you be that person that sparks smiles and generates even little jolts of joy?

“O wondrous creatures, by what strange miracle do you so often not smile?” –Hafiz

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.


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.



Don’t find yourself. Create yourself.


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.

Unending perplexity

“I wander about in unending perplexity.” –Socrates

Me, too.

I’ve spoken to several audiences of college students recently, and I’ve been telling them not to be distressed if they don’t have things figured out. No one has things figured out.

Everyone is totally winging it.

And the people who seem most certain that they have things figured out are the ones you should run away from as fast as you can.

This message is supposed to be comforting, but I’m afraid I’m just alarming some of these students who, as I’m sure I did when I was their age, are counting on more life experience bringing with it greater security and certainty.

The more you realize how much you don’t know, though, the more you know you’re headed in the right direction as a thinking human being.


The best gift: Your attention

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I’m heading out today on a weekend getaway with my wife and daughters, trapped in the car for several hours together.

This will be a good time to practice giving my complete attention to the people I love most.

The aim is to turn off my mental autopilot that is great at creating the illusion that I’m paying attention. Our close confines will at least help eliminate many of the usual distractions.

Being genuinely present with others takes effort and practice.

When someone offers you their full attention, though, it’s a bit startling. It’s such a rare and wonderful experience and such a generous gift.

Imagine if that was what you were known for. It would be like having a kind of superpower.


Flow states and peak moments

IMG_0039Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work, is doing some deep work on me. His challenge to focus more intently and work with more depth is hitting a nerve.

We are living in a shallow, distraction-filled age, and those who can defy the pull of the shallow and the frivolously urgent will be able to stand out and create more meaningful work.

And those who go deep will fill their lives with more happiness.

Newport quotes famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who did groundbreaking research on what he called “flow states”:

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

The resistance to getting into such a mind or body stretching activity is strong. But the payoff to overcoming that resistance could be the peak moments of your day, your week, your life.


John Gardner: Life is an endless unfolding

From the writings of John Gardner (ht John Maeda), who served in LBJ’s administration as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare: 

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful. 

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty. 

You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain. 

But life isn’t a mountain that has a summit, Nor is it — as some suppose — a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score. 

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring. 

This has the flavor of Alan Watts’s comparison of life to music.

“Life is an endless unfolding.” Lovely.

It’s common to see life as a mission to get somewhere, a journey with a shining final destination somewhere out there just beyond the horizon.

But, you’ll never get there, because there is no there there.

The journey, of course, is the destination. You will never arrive.

Or, actually, you’re constantly arriving.


Paul Graham on the shortness of life

Paul Graham has a thoughtful post about savoring life and making the most of whatever time remains for you.  

“Cultivate a habit of impatience about the things you most want to do.” –Paul Graham

His message is a great reminder to ruthlessly prune the meaningless clutter from your life and get busy doing what you will look back on as truly meaningful. 

What can you give?


It’s typical to start a new year with grand plans for your life, with goals and dreams and visions of a better you just around the corner of the next month or four or ten.

Well, yes, aim to get better and to fill your life with more meaningful pursuits.

But such goal planning can get a bit self-indulgent.

“What do I want?”

“What can I get?”

“How can I be happier, better-looking, richer…?”

What if instead you asked, “What can I give this year?”

“How can I contribute and make a difference?”

“What do I have to offer the world that only I can offer?”

“What is a significant problem I can begin to help solve?”

These questions spark in me a more engaging level of curiosity and enthusiasm than the self-focused questions.

Imagine winning the ultra-mega-awesome lottery jackpot. It’s fun to dream of what you would buy and to envision how the financial freedom would change your life. (For me, I’ll take a couple of Teslas and one of everything from the Apple Store and a long trip to Hawaii.)

But it’s even more fun to imagine what good you could do for others and for your community and for the world with a sudden fortune at your disposal.

It’s in giving and serving and offering something useful to others that we truly get satisfaction and joy.

Where can your voice, your creativity make a difference? How can you be distinctly useful? How can you help awaken possibility in others this year?

By focusing on what you can give, you’re also more likely to end up getting something more meaningful in return.

Imagine looking back on the year 2016 and delighting in what you contributed rather than in what you acquired.

So, if you’re feeling stuck or lost or you’ve abandoned your resolutions already, consider crafting your days around what you can give. 

*I couldn’t find the source to credit for the lovely photo above. Thank you, anonymous photographer. 

It’s a wonderful life

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One of the few movie moments to ever give me a lump in my throat is the finale of It’s A Wonderful Life. George Bailey, the main character, is shown just how wonderful his life is, even though he had not lived the life he had dreamed of.

But George’s life is wonderful because of kindness—the kindness he gave and the kindness he received.

No matter how bleak or harsh or dark the world may seem, kindness shines through.

Kindness is invincible.

It only seems that meanness and snark are ascendant. But they evaporate in the light of kindness.

And it’s a delusion to think that happiness is just ahead once you accomplish this or become that or somehow win at life.

Happiness is right here, right now. You can choose it.

Just be kind in this moment—to yourself and to the person in front of you or across the internet from you.

Today is a good day to be aggressively kind, to go out of your way to be more than superficially pleasant.

Message that friend. Send a note. Call a disconnected relative. Smile at strangers. Support a worthy cause. Actually listen when you ask how someone is doing.

It’s a wonder to be alive and aware in this magnificent and perplexing universe.

And life is more wonderful when kindness shines through your days.



How fragile we are

  All life is sorrowful, or ultimately unsatisfactory.

Heartbreak is coming your way, no matter how good life may seem at the moment.

The deeper you get into life and the more you experience, the more you realize—whether you allow yourself to acknowledge it consciously or not—pain is inevitable.

You will lose those you love dearly.

You will hurt and be hurt.

That bright, shiny dream will either elude you, or possibly worse, will be realized yet end up falling short of truly satisfying you.




But if you’re heartbroken right now, hang on a bit. Keep moving forward.

Joy is on the horizon.

So is sorrow.

You can’t have one without the other. They define each other.

We break most easily when we expect only joy.

Cynical as it seems, the secret to happiness is low expectations. Or seeing reality as it is.

Expect heartbreak. Anticipate cruelty and pain and disappointment. Steel yourself for the impersonal rhythm of reality.

But don’t give in to despair and cynicism. 

Life sucks sometimes, but not all the time—not even most of the time. It’s filled with wonders and light and hope.

We are fragile creatures. 

Be kind to everyone. Everyone is breakable, no matter how strong they may seem. 

Be kind to everyone, even those who seem undeserving. Who knows what they’ve gone through, what burden they may be bearing?

Be strong for others. You will eventually need someone to be strong for you.




The only interesting people

It turns out that people I consider great conversationalists don’t actually say very much in conversations. 

They ask good questions and listen intently. 

They are curious and present and authentic. 

And interesting. 

On coconut pie and numbering your remaining days

This Wait But Why post is enlightening and sobering. Tim Urban charts his life expectancy and the frequency with which he is likely to experience various things if he lives to 90.

Seeing all the weeks or days you have left laid out in a grid makes for a unique perspective.

I’m 51. If I’m lucky enough to live to 90, I’ve got fewer than 40 Christamases left to experience. Same for the seasons. Less than 40 summers remain.

And if I eat coconut pie only three times each year, I’m down to just 120 or so moments of coconut pie bliss. (Note to self and to my lovely wife who bakes the world’s best coconut pies: Create more coconut pie eating opportunities.)

The relationship insights of seeing your remaining life laid out like this are more striking. Urban shares this observation about his time with his family:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

It’s a similar story with my two sisters. After living in a house with them for 10 and 13 years respectively, I now live across the country from both of them and spend maybe 15 days with each of them a year. Hopefully, that leaves us with about 15% of our total hangout time left.

This is painfully true and a bit disheartening to contemplate. My parents and my sister were my world until I moved out for college. Once we lived in different towns, contact with them plummeted to just a few face-to-face encounters each year.

It’s going to happen with my kids, too. They are at the center of my life right now, and my wife and I are everything to them. But in a few years, their mom and I will just be peripheral characters in their ongoing stories.

The awareness of the finite nature of everything we do and experience can make those things shine with meaning more than our usual obliviousness allows.

Especially in this holiday season it’s helpful to remember to savor the fleeting moments you have with the people you love most.

Regularly focusing on the brevity of life will compel you to add more meaningful moments to the days remaining on your grid.

And you might just eat coconut pie a little more often.



Steve Martin and teenage heartbreak and the consolation of life’s routine

On my long drive yesterday I listened again to one of my favorite audiobooks, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.

When Martin was describing his teen years, he mentioned this conversation with an older coworker in his job at Disneyland:

“One day I was particularly gloomy, and Jim asked me what the matter was. I told him my high school girlfriend (for all of two weeks) had broken up with me. He said, ‘Oh, that’ll happen a lot.’ The knowledge that this horrid grief was simply a part of life’s routine cheered me up almost instantly.” –Steve Martin, from his book Born Standing Up

I remember being crushed by teenage heartbreak. It lingered like a cloud over me for way too long.

If only I had a Jim to tell me it was no big deal; heartbreaks are part of life; they’ll happen a lot.

Maybe I would have cheered up a lot quicker. (Or maybe not.)

Now, I regularly have young people seek my counsel about the uncertainties in their lives. “What path should I take?” “Why don’t I have answers to my hard questions?”

I want to tell them—and sometimes I do—”You will never be certain. Ever.”

That sentiment should be reassuring, right? If you don’t have it figured out, don’t fret because you never will. This horrid confusion is simply part of life’s routine.

I’m 51-years-old, and I am not close to having my life figured out. I’m totally winging it. (You are, too.)

I used to think there would come a point in my life when I would have “arrived”, when I would be sure and supremely confident and oh so wise.

Now I’m sure that point is perpetually receding into the horizon of my life.

I look at people two or three decades older than me and see just as much uncertainty.

Quarter-life crisis. Mid-life crisis. Late-life crisis.

You will face a lot fewer crises if you’re not expecting that your life will eventually resolve into blissful certitude.

The secret to happiness is low expectations, or at least realistic expectations. Expect heartbreak and uncertainty and loss and failure, and when you encounter them they won’t seem so dismal.

This is not pessimism. This is honesty. This is steeling yourself to meet life head on and make the most of whatever comes. And heartbreak and loss and uncertainty are coming.

But so is joy and delight and kindness and opportunities to grow and embrace all that your unscripted shot at life has to offer.

Step back and see that whatever gloom you’re facing is merely temporary. Everything is temporary. This is life’s routine, and you get to be a part of it. How grand.

Cheer up and get back at it.

You are someone, somewhere rather than no one, nowhere

David Cain, in the most recent post on his consistently insightful blog, Raptitude, discusses the malleable nature of reality and the perspective you can cultivate that your life is always just beginning, like a movie scene coming to life from black:

When you can look at any moment as though it’s the first moment, if you can really see your surroundings as the opening frame in a story, the world gains a certain playfulness. Suddenly your problems seem more interesting than annoying, the way another person’s problems always seem easier to solve than your own. It’s almost impossible to be impatient with others, because it’s fascinating that they’re even there. You still care about outcomes, but it’s far easier to relax around the possibilities. Any uptightness about making things go a certain way seems a bit silly, because it already seems unlikely that anything is even happening, and that you’re at the helm.

This magic only happens in a vivid awareness of the present moment.

Usually, we are numbly going through the motions, unaware that the moment we are living through is this dynamic, unique, priceless bit of stranger-than-fiction reality.

You are part of something. You are somewhere rather than nowhere.

You just have to wake up regularly and see that your story is beginning anew each moment.

Cain closes with this:

In other words, being alive seems like no big deal, until you can imagine, for a moment, what it means not to be alive: no experience, and no story. When you can see the present moment as though the camera has just started rolling, you get a hint of just how rich it is, and has always been.


Your life is daily improv.

Be willing to trust that you will come up with something worthwhile when your moment comes. 

Think of those cliche icebreaker activities where everyone goes around a circle and answers the same question, like “What’s your favorite book?” 

The activity is designed to have people get to know each other better. But what really happens?

You’re acting like you’re paying close attention to what everyone is saying, but you’re actually rehearsing in your mind what you will say when it’s your turn. 

What if, instead, you emptied your mind and focused completely on the others? When your turn came you would have to trust that something intelligible would come out of you. 

In fact, the spontaneous, improvised response is likely to be more effective than the one you would have contrived. 

Your life is now. Strengthen your improv muscles by showing up regularly and being as fully present as you can be. 

Say “Yes” to whatever circumstances you find yourself facing. Trust that the life you’ve lived has prepared you for this moment. 

Bertrand Russell on the good life

Kottke posted a link to University of Utah professor Matt Might’s thoughtful career and life advice.

There is so much worth pondering in that post. But the career applications especially stand out. 

Might’s academic career floundered when he saw his work as a means to an end. But his work flourished when he did work for its inherent value and for its meaning to him. 

Focus on being awesome, not on being successful. 

And he shared a portion of this quote: 

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Knowledge and love are both indefinitely extensible; therefore, however good a life may be, a better life can be imagined. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” –Bertrand Russell

So good. 

Love and knowledge. Beauty and truth. 

Indefinitely extensible. 


Enough to fill a life. 

A good life.