Lines of excellence

In a press conference just weeks before his death, President Kennedy was asked by a reporter if he liked his job. Kennedy’s response:

“Well, I find the work rewarding. Whether I am going to stay and what my intentions are and all the rest, it seems to me it is still a good many, many months away. But as far as the job of President goes, it is rewarding. And I have given before to this group the definition of happiness of the Greeks, and I will define it again: it is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the Presidency provides some happiness.”

The “full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.


I’m late to the Marvel Cinematic Universe party, and the last few films have had me wondering who many of the superheroes are and what exactly are their powers.

Well, what exactly are your powers? I’m not completely sure what mine are.

Whatever they are, I know I’m not putting them to their “full use”.

Passive mode prevails over active mode way too often and the easy distractions of this age make it even harder to muster the will, to fully tap into my powers.

The looming regret just around the corner will be that of unfulfilled potential and unlived life. Powers wasted, left dormant and unsummoned.

Snap out of it, this half-slumber that most of us are muddling through. Fully use your gifts. Make them true gifts that offer value beyond yourself.

And be awesome in the process. Aim for excellence. Be discontent with just good enough.

Full use of your powers along lines of excellence.

“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

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.


Choose kind 

My 7-year-old daughter came by my office after school on Tuesday. It’s the last week of school, and she was lively and lighthearted and spent some time, as usual, writing on the whiteboard in my office. When I left work I noticed she had written this on the board: 

“When given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

I paused and wondered where a 7-year-old came up with such a thoughtful bit of wisdom, but I forgot to ask her about it.

The next day my wife and I attended the end-of-year party for her second-grade class. Her teacher, Ms. McCranie, is a superhero of a teacher, and she’s retiring this year after a long and remarkable career. As Ms. McCranie was giving out the academic awards she came to the Citizenship Award and explained that it was awarded primarily for kindness. She said she tells her students that, “when given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

“Aha”, I thought. That’s where my Annie got that wisdom. And I was so impressed that this thought had been impressed in my daughter’s consciousness so distinctly.

And then Ms. McCranie announced that the Citizenship Award for her class was being awarded to Annie.

Her mom and sister and I are entitled to smirk at this slightly, knowing what it’s like to live with her occasionally feisty and fiery moods. But if in public and at school, at least, she’s demonstrating enough kindness to win a class award and she can quote verbatim such solid wisdom, I’ll take it.

I need to have that wisdom impressed on me regularly as well.


Stoic Zen: The glass is already broken

Kottke shared this paragraph from Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This is Zen. But also very Stoic.

Negative visualization is a Stoic practice. Imagining and accepting the worst case can help me better appreciate what is while preparing me for what could be.

Ordinary laziness

From the @AlanWattsDaily Twitter stream:

I’m torn between the desire to get big things done and make a dent in the universe and the inclination to chill out a lot more often, to just play and ponder.

Balance, right? The down times, the lazing about, can give fresh energy to the dent-making endeavors.

Most of us, though, lean hard away from, or at least try to appear to lean away from, the “pleasant mellowness” of ordinary laziness. Got to look busy, you know.

Tim Kreider’s manifesto on the merits of idleness

Tim Ferriss is featuring an audiobook version of Tim Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing, on his podcast. He posted a sample of the audiobook with a free chapter, Lazy: A Manifesto.

The sample chapter is a terrific essay on the crazy obsession our culture has with being “busy”. When you ask someone how they’re doing, “Busy” is a common and depressingly acceptable, even admirable, response.

Go listen to that free chapter. It’s so good. And Kreider will have you questioning your own addiction to at least appearing to be busy.

From the book:

“Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cellphones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are *so busy*, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

And this:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice: it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

There is not enough idleness in my life. And most of my busyness is probably not accomplishing much in the big scheme of a 13-billion-year-old universe.

“I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” –Tim Kreider

Do less, better. That should be my mantra. What does matter? What will count for something worthwhile when I look back on it? What makes for a really good day? Focus on the quality of those things that will send me to bed each night with the satisfaction, not of having been busy, but of having spent my time wisely and joyfully.

David Malham on dying: “Let’s not save our affection”

Yesterday there was an essay on the New York Times opinion page by a retired grief therapist, David Malham, who has been diagnosed with A.L.S. and is facing his imminent death.

It’s a thoughtful and light-hearted reflection by someone well acquainted with the grief of others. It’s a worthwhile read in whole. He highlights the absurdity of coming to grips with your own mortality:

But it’s not that we forget that we will die; it’s that we work hard to not remember it. Yes, we accept the plural “we will die,” but it’s the particular, the “I” that we have trouble with. It’s easier to accept “we” because the “I” believes it can hide when the others in the “we” are taken. When it comes to the particular, we are, each of us, facing death new and uncomprehending. 

Woody Allen wryly said: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But it’s coming for each of us. My life is terminal. Yours is, too.

Thinking about your death too obsessively can send you into an existential funk and shadow the light from the life you’re living. But living in denial of your ultimate fate will make meaningfulness elusive.

Malham suggests, though, that it’s the prospect of the deaths of those we love that is more troubling even than accepting our own demise.

My mom would have turned 73 today. (Happy birthday, mom!) She died almost ten years ago. Her absence from our lives still stings, a decade later. Our family has not recovered, and likely will not recover, the bond we once had when she was alive. She was such a joyful, dynamic presence and was the heart of not just our immediate family but even, somewhat, of both extended families. Life goes on, though. Or, the living keep living. For now.

Stoic sages advise periodically envisioning the loss of those you love. Sounds like an unappealing practice, right? It’s meant to be. The point is to face that kind of momentary pain often enough to make you better appreciate your loved ones while they’re with you.

Malham’s closing exhortation is tinged with just such a Stoic perspective:

We want to be (lightly, only lightly) aware of death not because our story will end, but because the stories of those we hold dear will end, perhaps before ours. The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.

“Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.” –David Malham

Alan Watts: Hurry is fatal

I found these thoughts on the @AlanWattsDaily Twitter stream today:

A hurried feeling is a good sign that I need to pause and reflect.

The great (greatest?) coach John Wooden would regularly say to his team: “Be quick, but never hurry.”

Take cues from nature. Let life come. Don’t force. Take it easy.

Be like the amazing Bruce Lee and be water.

Hurry is fatal, at least to any possibility of being awake to the present moment, which is the only place my life ever is.

*I had a set of Alan Watts lectures on cassette tapes that I literally wore out fifteen years ago. Watts was as engaging and as challenging and as entertaining a thinker as any I’ve heard. His books, The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, are two of the most mind-stretching I’ve ever read.

Upgrading your life “operating system”

I listened to this Tim Ferriss interview with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis recently. Diamandis is promoting his new book, Bold, which is a challenge to aim higher, dream crazier dreams, and take bold action.

The podcast is a solid interview, filled with perspective shifting insights and stories.

I was particularly struck by Diamandis’s notion that we should periodically reevaluate our mind’s OS, our operating system for how we think and behave. I upgrade my computer’s OS almost yearly, but how often do I tinker with my primary mental default settings?

We add “apps” (a new language or skill, for example), but rarely do people examine, tweak, or completely upgrade their default “OS”, the set of assumptions and beliefs about life most people are handed by family, friends, and culture.

Computer software tends to get buggy and slow down over time, and to keep up and remain effective it needs regular updates and occasional wholesale upgrades.

But don’t most of us still rely on unexamined beliefs and principles and buggy habits and potentially outdated modes of operating?

My recent immersion in Stoic philosophy, for example, has led me to rewire my approach to obstacles and setbacks. I’m less of the blind optimist and more willing to embrace the negative.

The primary worldview I had at age 20 is mostly gone now, replaced, however, by an approach that is more realistic, more challenging, and ultimately more empowering. I know, though, how difficult it is to upgrade and debug a long-established mindset. Maybe I’m just slow and particularly resistant to change, but it’s taken three decades to reboot some fairly basic, outdated patterns.

The unexamined life, though… Not. Worth. Living.

Live immediately

Seneca, possibly the most eloquent of the Stoic sages, from the work most consider his masterpiece, On the Shortness of Life (via BrainPickings):

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Just start.

The invincible human being

I had previously filed away this article, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, and just dug it up out of Instapaper. It’s a good summary of some basics of Stoic philosophy. And, at the center is this, beautifully explained by the author:

What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’

Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.’ We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.

“Choice is really all we have.”

You can choose your response, your attitude, no matter the circumstances.  Some “bad” event can be redefined as “good” if you use it to learn, to grow, to become a stronger person. Imagine embracing all that occurs as though it was part of a master plan to refine you into an invincible human being.

What not to do

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What can I eliminate from my life to enlarge my life? I’m more aware of the clutter around me at the end of all the holiday excess than at any other time of year, and I need to use this season to propel me to hone in on the essentials.

I’ve already stopped some monthly services that were automatically billing my credit card but that just were not so useful any longer. I am going to take stock of the physical things that take up space around me but offer little value in return. If I don’t need it or love it, let it go.

What about my routines, most of which are unexamined? What is sapping energy from me or diverting me from more important priorities?

What about my work? What do I do that doesn’t add value? What can I cut that will free up resources for what’s truly essential?

What can I say “No” to that will make space for a more meaningful “Yes”?

Little by little obligations and habits and things accrue and impede or completely divert us from what we really want to do or be. Like how a controlled burn in a forest clears out the brush and makes room for new life, a regular, conscious purge of the inessential in my life can spark new possibilities or simply a return to first things.



Alan Watts: Spontaneity is total sincerity

via @alanwattsdaily

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

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

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

Life happens. Here and now. Just show up.

Joseph Campbell’s samurai tale


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Less, but better

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

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

Emptiness has energy. Clutter sucks energy.

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

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

Kindness is invincible

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Meditations 11.18 ix

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

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

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

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

How we spend our days

We wake up to a gift every morning. No matter the worry and heartache, here we stand each day, surrounded by wonder and found joys and mystery enough to fill a life of days.

I want a good life, a life I can look back on with gratitude and satisfaction. A good life, though, is crafted day by day, one morning after another.

What does it take for you to put your head on the pillow for a night of satisfied sleep? What makes for a good day for you? When you think back on really good days in your life, days that were wholeheartedly satisfying, what was it about those days that made them good? How can you be intentional about building the elements of satisfying days into every one of your days?

Some days are just going to suck, I know. And much of what happens to you is out of your control. But you can control your actions and your responses and your attitude. Why not be the artist of your days, taking the initiative to build your days around what you know to be good and worthwhile?

Your daily habits and daily rituals and routines will over time shape your life and make you into who you become, whether those actions are mindful and intentional or not. Act now like you are who you want to become and choose to live your way into the kind of of life you aspire to have, one day at a time.