What I learned last week (#20)

Learned last week: Thoughts on what drives us, the power of name-your-price, umpires are wrong a lot, and more.

Quote I’ve been pondering: “It’s not how well you play the game. It’s deciding what game you want to play.” – Kwame Appiah

Favorite book excerpt of the week: From Gabor Mate’s  section in Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss: “don’t confuse being driven with being authentically animated by an inner calling. One state leaves you depleted and unfulfilled; the other fuels your soul and makes your heart sing.”

A simple way to win customers and make a fair wage: We spent our Saturday morning out with the kids at Seattle Center, and grandma got the kids balloon animals after being lured by a particularly funny and gregarious vendor in one of the main public spaces. When she went to pay and asked how much, he said there is no set price, you can pay us what you feel like.

Shocked, she ended up paying 10 dollars for 3 minutes of this guy’s time, a pretty good hourly rate. I bet he gets more than that more often than he gets less. This made me think of other areas where I would pay more than the set price because the product is so enjoyable (just like the 3 minutes spent with this vendor). I would do this with more music and art if it was convenient (I guess this is what Patreon is for).

Umpires in baseball are wrong (a lot): This is a long-read but as a fan of baseball I found it super interesting. The video near the beginning showing the worst calls is golden

New music for focus time at work: Etudes for Piano Vol 1. No. 1 – 10 by Philip Glass has been great for focus time at work or writing. I’m going to check out more of his stuff. (Hat tip to Scott)

“Work hard” is advice with a short shelf life

I’ve experienced the value of hard work and the danger of working too hard. My work must work for me, not the other way around.

I come across the advice that one needs to “work hard” frequently in my reading. There are other, more sinister variants that are common too, like “Work harder than everyone else”, “Outwork the competition”, or “Do what it takes”. This is commonly offered as advice on how to be successful, as a desired trait for a job applicant, or as something someone did that made them stand-out and reach heights that others aspire to. While I agree that a strong work ethic is an important quality to develop early in one’s life, I think it’s vastly overemphasized as a means to be “successful” and can lead many people astray.

Working hard is often regarded as a perpetually active state, a super power that must constantly be deployed like Spiderman swinging on his web in each encounter. If you are fortunate, this feels effortless, natural and empowering. The results can often lead to thrilling highs, the high of exceeding your bosses expectations, of exhausted praise from peers and of big rewards. Unfortunately, there is a more-common-than-not flip-side to this. Working hard is also synonymous with putting in more hours, being constantly connected, and working because you “should be” and are expected to if you are really passionate about your customers/your art/whatever. Striving to work hard can cause one to ignore boundaries, be one-dimensional, have a distorted view of self-worth and ultimately chase after results and expectations instead of accepting (and appreciating) reality.

How does someone parse the good hard work from bad hard work?

In the year 2000, I was just starting my bachelor of arts in marketing and internet studies (my 3rd major, after somehow failing to apply to the art program and giving computer science a go for a couple of quarters and hating it). It was then that I discovered the web, a new to organize information and design using new creative tools, and it was all I wanted to work on website design. I loved spending time doing this and did so almost any chance I could get. I was energized by the work, and I was by all definitions “working hard”. This was good hard work. My personal life and school life flourished.

Contrast that experience with another around the year 2009. I was working as a member of a remote team on things I didn’t really care about, but that I thought were important for me to know and experience. I was meeting with teams from the UK, France, Singapore and India and thus was pulling crazy hours to make it all work. I was paying my dues and getting good experience, or so I thought. I was by definition “working hard”. This was bad hard work. My professional life stagnated and my marriage fell apart soon after.

The key difference between these experiences is that when the good hard work was happening, I wasn’t thinking about the work. I was thinking a lot about (and doing) what I was truly interested in, I was doing work that was aligned with my goals at the time, I was challenged, I was having other experiences at the same time that gave me breaks (college is good for that), and it all fed and amplified my sense of self-worth. Contrast that with the bad hard work phase, in which I started to ignore side projects, didn’t look after myself physically, felt my marriage deteriorating, and was in many general adrift.

I’ve had a job since I can remember, starting with working in my Dad’s shop before it was legal, to a steady career in retail in high school and college. Even in those early years of learning the value of hard work (and having it suck at times), my overall feeling was one of pride and agency in my future. It was good hard work.

I’ve wasted plenty of time stubbornly working harder and ignoring the signals that something is amiss, that my priorities are off, that my work is working me and not the other way around. I bet a lot of other people are in the same boat.

I love and value hard work, but it’s advice with a short shelf-life. Once you learn the basics, working hard comes for free when you are doing what matters most. Knowing what matters most is the real challenge. That requires dedication, discipline and focus. Committing to that is what life is about and to do it requires that you truly work hard.

(By the way, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t do hard work)

A Drawing A Day

This experiment, during a summer break between junior and senior years of high school, is rooted in life skills I’m still trying to master.

I want to be an artist!

I would say this to myself and others while I was growing up. It was a big, nebulous goal that I actively worked on in fits-and-starts throughout my childhood and into adulthood. I loved the practice of art but also romanticized an artist lifestyle that I would surely one day realize. Why did I want to be an artist? What habits and techniques did I need to develop to get me there? I didn’t know, I just knew I like it. My goal proved effective on it’s own as a way to focus energy in a general direction, but I could feel that some things were left out. For one, I wasn’t very intentional about achieving my goal.

intentional (adj): done on purpose; deliberate.

I’ve generally felt that new years resolutions are only partially effective, similar to my experience with the goal of being an artist. The same way I’m put off by the question “where do you want to see yourself in 5-10 years”, resolutions tend to be, at least for me, at risk for being too big to wrap my arms around and too focused on a destination versus the journey. Instead of just having big resolutions/goals, I’ve learned that I have to first have solid principles that ground me as well as a set of good habits and routines that support the experiments necessary to improve and progress toward my goals.

The Experiment

I recently remembered an “experiment” I did when I was 16. It was the summer of ’96, and while my sister and I went to school in Seattle, in the summers we visited my Dad in Wyoming. This meant that I didn’t have the distraction of my classmates, and in a surprising moment of wisdom, I took advantage of that situation. I set forth a goal of spending an hour per day doing one drawing. The only real criteria I set was that the drawing is done completely in one sitting. I remember that I was really interested in becoming a better artist and I knew I had to practice in order to advance to the next level, but I wasn’t very disciplined at setting aside time and always felt like I needed an idea before I started. In turns out what I really needed was to get out of my own way. I obviously didn’t think of it in any deep way though, I just enjoyed drawing.

So, I got a sketchbook specifically for the task and every afternoon, sometime between 3pm-5pm, I sat down at the desk in my room and did a drawing. The subject of most of these were of superheros and heroic adventure scenes and high-flying car chases, and a lot of them are not very good technically (my figure proportions are way off), but I did it. I filled an entire sketchbook front-to-back with full drawings, and I “finished” them by spraying fixative on at the end (thus they wouldn’t smudge). They exist to this day. There is even one or two that I love.

I drew action scenes like this a lot. Seattle Five-0!
Landscapes and buildings, definitely my thing.
This is where I started to find my style.

The Result

Even though the habit of a drawing a day was simple in theory, it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I didn’t really want to draw, or didn’t feel like I had a good idea for what to draw, but regardless I sat and and drew something.

Until last week, I hadn’t thought about a drawing a day in years and was almost shocked when I remembered how much satisfaction, joy and energy it gave me as a teenager. A drawing a day was a step towards being something I wanted to be and was totally in my control. It required the simply the discipline to put a pencil to paper and move it. A purpose, goal and action aligned.

A drawing a day led me to ultimately pursue web design, begin a career in technology and was a precursor for my approach to other changes that have most positively impacted my life. Recent examples include experimenting with my diet (going 30 days without caffeine, alcohol, gluten, meat, etc) and another experimenting with mindfulness (starting with 10 min meditations a day for 30 days).

Experimenting with your life frees you to create differently, but you need to choose new causes (intentions) consciously. If you don’t choose different intentions consciously, unconscious parts of your personality (the frightened parts) will choose them for you, along with the consequences they will create for you.

Gary Zukav, from the article Intentions and Effects

As I reflect on the past year, I can see that I’ve been pretty good at setting goals (although I can always be better at making them more SMART) and am all-in on progress through experimentation for achieving those goals, but I still struggle with feeling buffeted about by things outside of my control and sometimes feel that I don’t have an internal compass. What’s open for experimentation vs not? How should I choose what to prioritize? How do I weather different challenges and emotions with confidence? What I’ve been searching for can be summed up brilliantly by the following:

“You might not always achieve success, but you can always behave honorably. You can act in alignment with essential values, attaining the peace of mind I call ‘success beyond success.”

Fred Kofman, from the book Conscious Business

The Next Level

My next step is to spend more time developing and refining my “why” (thank you Simon), also know as my principles, and lining up my goals and actions accordingly. Here’s the framework I’m (experimenting) with in order to be more intentional:

  1. Establish principles. I have a list of principles that I have been building and refining over the past year. These are the things that provide the foundation for my intentions and who I want to be. Want help figuring these out? Try this: write down three people you admire. Now write down 3+ traits each of them have that are the basis for your admiration. Those are the same traits you want to have and, I bet, already do. An example of a principle I have is to focus on quality over quantity, and a sub-bullet under that is focusing on on depth of experience vs a material goods.
  2. Set clear goals. I have a written list of goals, the things I’d like to explore or make happen. These build off of my principles and can and will change. An example of one of my goals is to be a self-published writer and an artist. Another is to move to Scotland with the family.
  3. Make progress be experimenting. I treat all my tactics as really small, achievable experiments. This is the path to achieving my goals, as they force action and naturally lend themselves to adaptation. Setting aside 60 mins to draw and write each day for the next 6 months is an example. Creating content for this blog with my wife is another.
  4. Reflect and refine. I try to do reflection on a weekly and monthly basis, it’s so important. Thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t tends to feel like wasted time, as we want to just get on with the next thing. Spend more time here than you want to and it will benefit. After all, that’s how your principles came about in the first place!

In many ways setting goals is the easy part. The challenge is in knowing yourself well enough to set the right goals, and in having the discipline to sit down and work on them, one drawing at a time.