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:




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


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:






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.

Energy crisis

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” –Bertrand Rusell

The know-how may be less crucial than the want-to and the get-up-and-go. The will to action can be tough to summon. But it’s often the first step—the leap, the getting up and getting started—that stalls us.

Even if you don’t feel like it, just get started in some small way on your grand plan for making the world better or on your humble dream to be a better version of yourself.

Fake it if you have to. Act like you already are who you want to be. Forward movement builds momentum and renews energy you didn’t know was there.

Don’t wait till you’ve got it figured out to get started. You’ll never have it figured out. It’s only in the doing that the thinking can take flight.

Feeling a bit hopeless? In despair? Just start.

Things fall apart: The Second Law and the meaning of life

I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)

My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.

Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.

Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.

It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.

But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.

Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.

The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.

Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.

It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?

But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.

Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.

Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.

And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?

Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.

The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.

I’ve shared this before, but a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, issues a fitting challenge:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.

Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.

Favorite new thing: AirPods

Last summer I used the Father’s Day gift card I received from my family to buy a pair of Apple’s wireless AirPods.

It was a bit of a splurge, but they weren’t much more expensive than the Jaybird Bluetooth earbuds I had been using previously. And the Jaybirds regularly let me down. The battery life was a mystery, and they would too often lose their connection.

Several months later, the AirPods have become an essential part of my daily carry. The case is brilliant. It keeps the AirPods charged without me having to think about it. I charge the case once, maybe twice a week. The case is a delight in the hand. The size and shape are perfect. Each AirPod clicks into place inside the case with a satisfying magnetic plop. Thanks to the nifty case and no annoying wires, I keep them in my pocket at all times.

I’m no audiophile and don’t use these to listen to music. The audio quality is great for my purposes, though. I really only use these for podcasts, audiobooks, and phone calls. And I usually only use one AirPod at a time while I’m driving or talking on the phone. If I’m out for a walk, I’ll put them both in. But by only typically using one AirPod at a time, I’m effectively doubling the battery life.

The built in mic is impressive. Siri understands me better through AirPods than when I’m just talking to my iPhone.

The only quirk is the fit, or actually my ears. Turns out my left ear has a different shape than my right ear. (That was news to me, too.) The right AirPod fits great. The left one, not so much. It just barely stays in. Since I one-AirPod it regularly, though, it’s not much of a problem. The right one just gets most of the use. I bought some cheap rubber ear hooks to use when I’m exercising with them to make sure that left one stays put.

Since I consume so much information from audiobooks and podcasts, AirPods have been a wonderful addition to my daily routine. A lot of new technology products, especially in somewhat new categories, take a few iterations before hitting their stride. But with AirPods, Apple hit this one out of the park on its first try.

My favorite audiobooks of the past year

Listening to books became a more regular thing for me last year. I’ve got a monthly Audible subscription and download a new book each month. I favor biography and history for audiobooks. I’m not sure why, but I’m not as interested in listening to fiction. I would rather read it.

It does feel kind of like cheating to “read” books by listening to them. But the oral tradition of storytelling goes way back before the printed word ever existed. So, I’m treating my recent audiobooks obsession as getting back to our ancient roots sitting by a fire listening to the tribal storyteller.

Plus, it’s a very efficient way to consume more good books in an otherwise busy life. I listen as I drive and as I walk the dog and while doing work in the yard. Some of these books were such a delight that I was inclined to drive the long way or go slower or sit in the driveway for a few minutes to get to a natural break in the story.

And I wore my dog out while listening to the truly remarkable books on Lincoln and Grant I list below. “Come on, Mosley, let’s go for another long walk and hear how Mr. Lincoln wins the nomination for president…”

I was even extra enthusiastic about working in the yard: “Honey, I’m going to go outside and mow the lawn and learn how General Grant captured Vicksburg. See you in a couple of hours…”

Here are my favorite audiobooks from the past year:

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – So good! I was already on team Lincoln, my favorite person from history, but this book took my affection for him even higher. Goodwin (who wrote a couple of other great books I’ve enjoyed about the Kennedy family and the Roosevelts) makes a fairly familiar story come to new life by weaving in the stories of the key people around Mr. Lincoln. The narrator was excellent, and the story, though we all know how it ends, was so moving. Got a lump in my throat at his death. 41 hours of audiobook/history-nerd bliss.
  • American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald White – What a nice surprise. I knew very little about Grant other than what everyone knows about his military accomplishments and that his reputation seemed a bit sullied by his tenure in the White House. This book rocketed Grant up near the top of great Americans in my view. He was a leader of unparalleled character, steely determination, and endearing humility. He came practically out of nowhere to be the indispensable man in securing the Union’s victory in the Civil War. His leadership as President is underrated. He was ahead of his time in pressing for civil rights and opposing racism while standing up to the Ku Klux Klan. He had the misfortune of being surrounded by some unscrupulous friends and subordinates, though, who took advantage of his trust. The story of his race to write his memoirs to save his family from financial ruin while he was dying of throat cancer and spurred on by his friend Mark Twain… Remarkable. And those memoirs turned out to be one of the great pieces of autobiography in American literary history. (Also, the narrator for this audiobook was particularly good. A good narrator makes a big impact on the listening experience.)
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – A little bit of Roman history and philosophy inside the story of a Catholic Church bureaucrat from the Middle Ages who discovers a long lost and transformational manuscript.
  • The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen – I knew little about Darwin’s life before listening to this relatively short biography. It focuses mostly on the slow and careful approach he took to grasping his theory and then, finally, sharing it somewhat reluctantly with the world. Darwin comes across as a genuinely thoughtful and kind man who loved his wife and children dearly. His meticulous methods in his work allowed him to see patterns in nature that led to arguably the biggest breakthrough in the history of science.
  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – This one starts slow in detailing what can be known about the founding of Rome and its early history. But it picks up steam in describing the Republic and the beginnings of the empire.

This one wasn’t a recent listen, but I can’t mention audiobooks without a plug for one of my favorites: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Martin reads it himself and even plays the banjo between chapters in telling the story of his career as a stand-up comic. Aside from sheer entertainment, it’s worth a listen as a primer on what it takes to craft a great career.

Currently, I’m back and forth between two audiobooks: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. The Washington biography was a slog early on. He’s not as endearing as Lincoln or Grant. But it’s picked up as the story moves into the Revolutionary War. I’m putting Thoreau on hold until I finish with Washington.

Reading has shaped my life more than any other habit. When I was frustrated at the lack of time I was making for books last year, turning to audiobooks salvaged my year as a reader. I still read traditional books and keep a novel on my nightstand. But getting more books into my life through audiobooks has been a delight.

The spectacular now

I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now. He makes the compelling case that the world has never been better for humans than right now.

In, say, 200,000 years of human history we have never seen such low levels of violence, crime, war, disease, or famine.

In 1800, the average life expectancy was less than 40 and had been that or lower for millennia. These last two centuries have seen amazing breakthroughs that have given us dramatically longer lives and better quality of life as well.

If you just read the news or social media, you would think we’re doomed. The news business has a financial interest in keeping you worried and tuned in and clicking links.

But zoom out to take in the big picture and you will see we are very fortunate to be alive right now.

Sure there are challenges to confront and puzzles to figure out, but there is abundant cause for hope that we can keep trending up as a species.

On not aiming for fame

I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.

She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.

The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.

Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.

The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.

In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.


Change happens

“Change leads to insight more than insight leads to change.” –Milton Erickson

We overestimate, especially in January each year, how much we can, or, more accurately, will initiate change. Best intentions of a new and better you usually remain merely intentions.

But some kind of change is going to happen—likely change you can’t foresee, much less desire.

Be prepared, then, to use whatever may come as an opportunity for new insight and growth. Embrace everything—everything—that happens to you as if you had chosen it. (This approach doesn’t exactly come naturally. Some hard mental jujitsu is necessary. I’m still a white belt here.)

But resistance to what already is is futile, so it would make sense to accommodate yourself to changing circumstances rather than getting flattened by them.

Paraphrasing Darwin, it’s not the strongest or most intelligent that survive. It’s those who are most adaptable to change.

Change is inevitable, it’s relentless, and it’s coming. At least use it to propel yourself forward.