Our Role In The Short and Long Work of Hard Problems

Infant mortality in the Midwest was been drastically reduced by beefing up science and nutrition in college classes for education majors–

so that teachers could teach better nutrition–

so that girls in high school would eat better–

so that pregnant women would be healthier.

The end result was that born children started healthier and were fed better. Infant mortality in the Midwest has dropped 68% since the 70s.

But that took the courage of a man named Paul O’Neill to dig past the urgent and dig for root problems so that substantial and lasting changes could be made. Babies were dying and he worked on college curriculum. (You can read more about it in Charles Duhigg’s book Habit.)

A friend is working on economic alternatives for coal miners in Kentucky,

so that people have an imagination for good pay other than coal mining–

so that people can be financially stable without getting black lung–

so that people’s taxes can be used on things other than healthcare–

so that less coal silt makes it into rivers–

so that fifty years from now Kentucky mountaintops are not akin to redwoods.

Or something harder and further out: A friend of a friend is currently trying to solve economic, transportation, food and waste issues for the poor in megacities that do not currently exist.

Any community needs people who take on the urgent work of strategically putting out the worst fires. But if that community is also concerned for future well being, it will also have people who are asked to sit and think and get to bed at a decent hour in order to find out the root cause of the fires long before the fires actually happen. These types of solutions are almost always decades long in the making.

The current conversation however is more often gathered around burning buildings–each night a new one. Without Googling it, tell me what was urgent a year and a half ago. And how much of it have you given thought to since? What is urgent now that you will likely not care or hear about in another 18 months?

I am not without guilt here, but I am working to get under the frantic discourse in order to do deep and thoughtful work about a small number of things over a great deal of time. It is difficult. Because much conversation is dominated by the current urgent—a 30 second explanation of a problem 30 years in the making. And even worse many of the urgent things are also tragic. How could you not care about this most statistically tragic thing that has happened yet and the problems that caused it?

To show my hand I am of the sitters and thinkers, I used to worry a great deal about this. I still do sometimes. So calibrate the following based on my bias:

First, for the firefighters, supposing that you are putting out important fires and not just someones backyard bonfire, keep up the great work, it takes a great deal of courage, thank you. Now stop getting mad that not everyone is a firefighter. Stop the default to call silence complicity or apathy. Long after you are dead, people will be grateful that someone was sitting in a chair thinking and tinkering while you risked your life.

Second, for the not currently as fashionable sitters and thinkers, pick a thing and learn to be content to be deeply and quietly committed to it. People’s eyes will roll or glaze over when you talk about it, they might accuse you of being selfish with your time. But fight for the space you need—you will have to fight yourself and others for it.

Your work will almost never feel urgent, and there is a good chance all your work will lead to nothing that anyone will notice. You will have to muster your own set of motivations for the long haul. You will need a different type of courage. Many of the good things we have were built by people who did not see outcomes until late in life, or even died wondering whether or not their work made any difference. And still more died having worked hard on a thing that made no apparent difference. You can’t tell which is which when you set out.

Finally I think there is an in-between, a good deal of people who neither want to put out fires nor sit and think. Or they might want to but their capacity only allows them to do it in small doses. I think often these people are maligned or spurred to care against their will. Or they are not recognized for how deeply they care for a few seemingly unimportant things.

There is an alcoholic here in Goshen, a friend of a friend, who does almost nothing for anyone, who cannot function well in public, who is a little too hotheaded to do most people good. But he is a significant support and friend to a couple of people in a way that they really need—in a way that helps those people stay sober, even if he can’t. We tend to aggrandize our own work and lessen the importance of the work of others, and when we do this we potentially distract them from their important work rather than encouraging them in it. Life has dealt us different hands and capacities, I believe we are responsible to play that hand well and nothing more.

My hand was great parents, a big extended family, a thousand acres to play on, a solid education, great brothers and sisters in law. And now a good deal of way-smarter-than-I-am friends. Barring some tragic event, I am fairly set. I feel a responsibility to honor that with my important work. Others have different hands and different responsibilities that are theirs to own.

 

 

Sparks of Light

The stunning thing to me about Mother Thereasa is that all she ever did was help people die. Her and others would find people in the gutter, wounds rotting and filled with worms. They would bring them back, bathe them, feed them, and laugh with them.

We are all dying—we just have a little more time than the man in the gutter. 

We get very caught up in the act of saving lives on all fronts—for others and ourselves. But really these things are nothing more than extensions of the time we have here.  

We tout extended life expectancy as the measure of health. We mourn those who die young.

But really longevity should have little to do with it. Death is a welcome mercy to many.

So, saving lives is a myth—insomuch that we mean extending the length of it. But if instead we do what Mother T did—pulling people out of the gutter and giving them laughter for their remaining time, I think we are getting closer.  

The world is filled with those who by physical or mental illness, or by chronic neglect or outright abandonment—will never be okay in the way we’d like them to be. They will likely they will die younger or they will suffer more greatly. The cards they are dealt have already determined a great deal of their outcome.

We tend to be arrogant about this point—that our success is the result of our individual decisions. There was a study done that exemplifies this. Two players were asked to play a game of Monopoly—but one was given extra starting money, to the degree that victory was nearly inevitable. The player with more starting money won—but time and time again still thought that it was because they had made good decisions. We are the sum of our responses to what we have been dealt. For some people that literally means that their great gift to the world is that they haven’t killed anyone. For others it means that their drinking problem was contained to a couple hours on the weekend—this was their great act of courage in their life, and the summoned all the strength they knew to accomplish that feat. And who has worked harder and moved farther: the little old lady who had a stable home and good education, who did little for others other than volunteer for a soup kitchen here or there; or the fellow who was beaten as a kid who still yelled at his children but mustered all his courage and never laid a hand on them?

  ***

For the sake of brevity, I will diminish a very significant thing and simply say—I believe Jesus is alive and active in the world. This complicates things. Perhaps even contradicts. I will offer nothing new here regarding whether or not a good God and suffering are contradictory. I have neither the humility nor the arrogance to take that on. But I do have a theory that Jesus does lift all ships—even those who don’t believe He exists. I don’t have a great desire to prove this, as if it were possible. Only to say that even in vary dark times I have not found a way to un-believe it. 

This isn’t as convincing as many Christians would like me to be. But it is on all fronts a flash of honesty—and I prefer that. But if you are mildly interested in what God is doing in the world, I believe that even these dark corners of our world can receive some light, if only what little is making its way under a closed door.

Recently, I sat on our front porch with a friend who has spent more of his life on drugs than off of them. From infancy he was dealt a very poor hand. The rest of his dying life might be be swaths of pain offset by small relapses into happiness and stability.

It was an overcast early evening. Great darkness. He said, “The darkness can pour in as strong as it wants and overwhelm a space. And it’s strong. But then the tiniest spark of light dispels it all.” This is poor science but great poetry and great faith. We sat in the dark—and then a strike of lightning jerked our heads to the East.  “That was a good metaphor.” he said. Then took a drag on his cigarette—nodding—and made it glow at the end.

Big Changes

After 8+ years of teaching guitar as my main occupation in terms of income, I am finished. This isn't a rash decision. I spent August through the end of November studying the ubiquitous web design language known as javascript. Most of the websites you use, especially the fancy* ones have javascript behind the screen as the electronic cogs that make clicked buttons and form data entry work. And as of yesterday,  I was accepted into an internship program at a company in Iowa called Banno a banking software company.**

Why computer programming? In no particular order:

1) I Enjoy It: It taps into my creative side believe it or not. The book that got me into coding in the first place is called Hackers and Painters. 

2) Eventual tripled salary: My goals with money have been simple, pay the bills, have time to create things, and get the occasional beef brisket sandwich from Goshen Brewing Company. Okay maybe get several beef brisket sandwiches (I have a behavioral weakness for good food). My priority hasn't been getting as much money as I possibly can. Though I've always tried to be smart about finding things that make more hourly and are flexible. But the fact that programming is flexible, mobile, and pays significantly more (eventually) than my current work has potential to do isn't a horrible thing. 

3) Remote Work: Although the company is in Iowa, we will be staying here in Goshen. Like much programming, I will be able to work remotely. Also, so long as I'm at set meetings, I can also put in my time whenever I want so long as I am accomplishing my projected goals and doing good work. Overall this is about as close as any job can be to working for yourself while working for someone else.

4) The Music: Programming was a very strategic move for me. Working remotely and having a flexible work schedule brings me back to the primary reason for the switch once I knew I would reasonably enjoy the work. Working from anywhere means that I can hop on a train to Baltimore, work on the train, work at a coffee shop during the days, play some shows, hop on the train back working on the train, etc. The world is my oyster folks.

So that is the what and why, but because we all go through these transitions (or at least we all want to at some point) I figured I'd included a bit of the how—things that I learned form this transition and from others who have gone through it that I will definitely keep in mind when the next transition comes. I hope they are helpful.

1. If you refuse to ever transition in the work you are doing, you will become toxic to yourself and to the environment that you are in: I sat with a group of retirees a couple of weeks ago. I asked them what they were glad they did during their work career and what they wish they would have done different. One gal mentioned the importance of being ready to grow and change over your career. You will be hired in for a position. If you do your job well you will move the organization forward and you will get better, meaning that you will both inevitably change and need different things.

The trick is to recognize and communicate with the organization about those changes and transition appropriately. Failure to do this and staying in a spot too long is bad for you and bad for people around you. I've seen teachers, coffee shop employees, pastors, sales people, you name it. I've seen people stay for too long. They get bitter and burnt out and toxic. When they moved into something else they marveled at how great the new thing was and how they lost weight and started saving money, and people were so much nicer. They blame the old job for being inherently 'bad' when really they should have just recognized that they had outgrown it, or it had outgrown them (often times thanks to their good work). 

2. Be smart about the path you choose, but don't look for magic beans, there are only hard ways: Growing into a new thing is tedious and difficult. If someone comes to you selling you an easy switch with a huge payoff, don't believe them.*** They are either stupid or lying. Don't believe me? Before taking on the idea, pitch it to the 5 smartest people you know and see if they think its as obvious as you do. Certainly there are better choices than others. I chose to go into a currently lucrative field with an immense amount of openings that values self-learning rather than just traditional education. Had I decided that I was going to make my fortune as a traveling clown, I would have had a far more difficult road ahead of me and perhaps a few visits from the police.****

2b. Learning completely new things is immensely difficult for anyone: While learning programming I had weeks in a row where I would spend the day trying to solve a problem that now seems simple but at the time amounted to hours of try and fail. In each situation there was a lot of mental pain. At one point I remember being so frustrated that I wanted to cry—a feeling I hadn't felt in over a decade. Pain is not a sign of stupidity or inability, it is a sign of learning.

3. You will always have reasons why you think you can't do such and such: I thought I understood what coding was (detail oriented, mundane work) and at one point figured this didn't 'fit my personality'—that it took some special acumen I didn't have. After some exploration I actually realized I was dead wrong. You don't know what something entails until you actually start digging in. So instead of assuming you can't, start digging through it to see if you are correct about that.

4. Have a more general goal for what you want, but be flexible with it: Mine was more flexible and mobile work that as a bonus paid a little more than what I was making. Computer programming, and more specifically the internship I was aiming for was a more specific version of that goal, but not the end game. That more specific goal gave me a target to aim for that helped me move forward, but in the back of my mind I understood that I might have to make a course correction or learn from a failure. The people I see who aim for these more general goals and don't get caught up on the specific path to that goal tend to do better. Maybe I would love getting a job doing computer programming for Bob Dylan doing work that saved starving clubbed seals in Africa and paid $100,000 a year, but there are a lot of different options for me if I keep that specific goal a little more flexible.

5. People helped me break through hard problems:  I had a couple good teachers. One hired, and one a volunteer. I recruited these people during a small window of clarity in October. I had felt like bringing people in was somehow cheating, but at this point cheating seemed like a wonderful break from being stuck, so I contacted them both and was immediately unclogged emotionally and intellectually. A good teacher gives you breadcrumbs rather than answers. No one is going to do the work for you, but it's arrogant to think that you are going to be able to do the work well without help from other people. 

6. Stop waiting for a perfect way forward and just find a way forward: I used an online course from Udacity that I haven't even finished yet. It was great, it was horrible, it was a way forward. The important thing is that it kept me wrestling through code and gave me projects so that I couldn't bypass things that were uncomfortable. 

7. Think in decades: Or if not in decades than in two or three year chunks. There is a lot that you can do in two or three years if you continue doing the same thing for that long. Thinking in three year chunks allows you to be smart about it. Maybe quitting your day job right away isn't the best idea, but maybe keeping your day job, saving as much as you possibly can, and then quitting your day job a year and a half in to pivot into the next phase of life is a really good idea. 

8. Save money for transitions you don't know about yet: Priority #3 (not everything can be #1) in this next season is going to be saving up 'pivot money' for the next inevitable shift. Having money in the bank gives you options. The people I see stuck in places they don't want to be and shouldn't be in are typically stuck there because of money. If they had spent the past several years they hated their job saving a small portion of that, they would have either more or better options to choose from. So even if you aren't at the place where you need to make a switch, even if you just did make a switch—set some simple habits that prepare you for the next one. 

 

Footnotes:

*Technical industry term.
**So basically I found the most boring field in one of the most boring states that I could.
***A caveat is that you might have spent years developing a skill that you haven't implemented yet—but this was still hard work, you're just to the easy part now. 
****It boggles my mind why clowns are still a thing. The most notable clowns in our culture are a serial killer and a demon. Also, at my friend's fifth birthday I kept hitting Taco the clown in the butt with a balloon sword until he yelled at me. 

Why You Should Go Looking For Pain

Our mind will naturally follow the path of least resistance. If you have picked up a cookie the last three times you walked past a plate of them, you will not have to worry about deciding on the fourth, your hand will do all the decision making for you. This is how I came to eat a half box of cream puffs on my birthday while playing Mario Kart with some friends. 

Pick one of the following categories to consider: finances, logical though, diet, relationships, parenting, home organization, education, work, etc. Whichever category you picked, think about your habits in that area. Do you just do it the way you've always done it, or is that a painful category for you right now? I hope it's the latter, because if you never experience pain in an area then you are probably giving in to the law of least resistance. Thus, me and cream puffs. Or me and finances and nickel and dining myself to death on coffee and tacos and gourmet hot dogs outside my office in the summers. And No pain, no gain is only half the story. Likely it's something more like No pain, then probably losing ground. 

Of course not all pain is a sign that you are resisting least resistance. But you are smart enough to figure out which kind of pain is which. Exercise is painful. Saying no to tacos and cream puffs is painful. The point is that there is a type of pain we should go looking for that is a sign that we are changing for the better. All good change involves this type of pain. We should learn to be excited to find it.

I won't pretend I am hardcore about this. I don't wake up at 5 every morning to work on my killer abs—they just naturally come out that way. I sometimes allow myself great swaths of least resistance. We are not machines, and there is a good reason why our brain acts this way that shouldn't be eliminated entirely. But I try to remember that during these times I shouldn't be deluded into believing that I am making the best decisions. Any good decisions I am automatically making are payouts from pain filled investments I've made (or have been forced to make) in the past. 

But it's not all about pain. In the long run resisting least resistance will make you feel better, but it is an act of delayed gratification. The mornings that I exercise and take a cold shower are miserable until I am done, and then they are the best mornings and best days after that. And the more I do them the more my brain makes me do them out of habit. 

So the key to avoiding the law of least resistance is to go looking for the pain your brain so desperately wants to avoid. You don't have to love it—it's just a piece of evidence that you might be moving beyond cruise control. 

Another Reminder of How Relationships Used To Be

A friend recently mentioned that a small group of people he gets together with from church stopped meeting in November and December because things were getting busy around the holidays. I laughed. It was such a simple thing to mention but he might as well have stood up and casually dumped his cup of tea on my head.

I recognized the scenario from years of being in such groups, where there are ten schedules to coordinate and a lot of "oh that weekend doesn't work so well for us" before that one opening presents itself and 75% of the people can be there so it gets tucked into a corner of the calendar.

And I still encounter this here and there, but not with our friends who live next door and two houses down. Since December 1st we've got together 15 or so times, and very little of that "scheduled" or "another thing" we should do. We have laughed together, ate together, talked through some of the heftier questions of life together. 

This way of being with people has been one of the key features of centering our life around a geographic point. If you drive a nail into our home on a map and then set a rubber band on it that starts to stretch when you want it to reach anything over four blocks, that is how we live most of our life. Our church is less than a block away, my office is a block and a half, and The Electric Brew where I have most of my meetings is just over a block. 

Sticking with the rubber band metaphor—it's not a hard and fast rule. Courtney works in Elkhart right now, and I frequently get out of town or state to play shows. But the bulk of our weekly life and relationships happen inside this little piece of the planet. 

This has it's hard edges of course. We cannot go anywhere in our little world without the very high chance of running into someone (more like ten people) we know. So if we are peopled out, we don't go out to eat, or to first Fridays, etc. Another difficult thing is that you are pretty well stuck with the other people who move in that same area. If it is uncomfortable to be around someone, well that's just too bad, neither of you are going anywhere anytime soon. 

But these are hard edges that feel like good work. It's the difference between the tiring long day farming that I grew up with and the burnt out long day that I've sometimes experienced as an entrepreneur. There is something good about being stuck with people. We see it in movies where very different get tethered by circumstance, stranded together or tied by the same purpose. We have these sorts of relationships, often as a result of work, worship, or family, but we often spread these categories out over a couple of counties. So we have our work friends in one county, and our church friends who meet every Sunday 20 minutes away (but they live another 20 minutes in the opposite direction), and our coffee shop/amazing local pub friends. 

But we've spent the past few years working on tying those things together with geography and it has been such a gradual but drastic shift that I don't hardly notice it until someone reminds me how it used to be. 



P.S. I went back and did some looking. Apparently this is the sort of post I've already done from time to time. And another one here.

It feels good to get back into quietly creating things for a season. In the past two weeks, my good friend Kimberly and I have spent the better part of 20 hours working on a new experiment. I won't talk much about it here yet, only to say that my songwriting muscles have been infrequently used and consequently a little atrophied. But the last couple of weeks have been whatever the opposite of cold Turkey is and I'm feeling it. 

New collaborations always get me a little nervous until there are a few wins under our belt and a bit of a working routine. We're grinding it out, but getting there quickly. And this round feels a bit easier. Having been through this process before, I recognize the labor pains and where they lead to. 

So if you are starting into something and it feels like a lot of hard with infrequent pay-dirt, keep at it. The muscles will warm up and the wins will start coming. And the best wins are the ones you really had to work for. 

Going Dormant

I’ve probably logged around 120 shows of varying type in the last couple years: solo acoustic, duets, The White Oaks, Metiér, I even played half a set of drums—after which I was promptly and appropriately fired. 

It has been a good season of mostly performing with spurts of creativity where I can fit it. 

And now it’s time to let the ground be fallow for a bit, to get out my musical crayons and doodle for no one in particular. 

I don’t suspect that music will be always fun or easy, in fact it is at least half of the time not those things. But I sleep better on the days that I show up and make good music or write a song I’m proud of. I carry stories in my head: the guy who told me one of my songs was the first song in the seven years since his wife died that really got to him; someone else who requested I cover Carry On My Wayward Son and cried in front of his grandkids talking about how much it meant to them—he also asked if I’d play it at his funeral one day. So there are these things that make me glad I put the time in, and I suspect there will be more that will make hard work worth it. 

And then there are the songs that I don’t like that I hard to write, but you don’t always get the songs you want to get. New King is definitely one of those. If it’s possible I am both very proud of that song and yet don’t like it at all. That song took a lot out of me with no intent of giving back, which is fine, it took some not great things out of me too.

So there is more work like all of that to be done, so I need to put some things back into the soil so the things that need to grow will have plenty to live off of. 

There is a Psalm that talks about a righteous man being a tree planted by living water that bears its fruit in season. There is an arrogance to demanding that we should always be producing. These things have cycles, I’m trying to pay attention to that—which is hard work when you’ve been ignoring it for so long.

So who knows how much or little I’ll be popping my head up in the next few months, but rest assured it’s an investment in future work. 

 

Songs for Grief

Courtney and I got a crash course on grief last couple of years. Our little dog got hit by a fire truck; I just lost my fourth grade teacher and long time friend; Another friend from high school who married my cousin is battling brain cancer. There are many things to feel not so excited about right now. Joy is a fight. 

But we've also been well equipped. Courtney worked for several months with a top notch grief counseling center—in fact they (long before my wife worked there) were called in to work with the survivors of the Nickel Mines Amish school shooting. 

And what was the biggest thing we learned? You have to feel it until it is done. Grief is a reservoir that needs to be emptied or the pain will not go away. In fact when you experience a new traumatic situation you not only have to deal with that reservoir of pain, but you also have to dredge up the old pain and feel all of that again. Bottled grief doesn't go away. In fact, when people grieve the death of a celebrity with intense emotion it is often because they have grief from their past that they haven't processed. 

So how do you empty the reservoir? You have to access the pain and then feel it until it's done. Then a few months later when it resurfaced, you have to feel it again until it's done. And how do you access the pain? Well one way is through art, the bridge between emotion and ideas. 

There are a lot of songs for grief, including 4 that my friend and mentor Jonathan Reuel put together on the album Past, Future, Present. They are available to stream or download for free

You might think that sad songs for sad people is a bad idea—but according to neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levinton, when you listen to a sad song when you are sad, your brain releases the same hormone that a mother breastfeeding her child puts into the milk. It's called prolactin—it comforts you.

We've all lost people, places, and things that need to be mourned. Don't shy from the pain—face into it so you can be ready when someone else in trauma needs a friend.

Slapped By the Little Man

Imagine that there is a little man who follows you around everywhere. He seems pleasant and you get along fairly well. Though he has one quirk—he is particular about what sorts of things you take time to notice. For example, the little man likes Ford trucks. His father had one, and his grandfather. They are simply the best. When you say that they are the best, or maybe you spot a magazine article about how great they are—the little man gives you a Twinkie. This is not so bad—in fact you might find yourself looking for more articles praising Fords. 

On the other hand, this quirk has a dark side. One day you see a tv show talking about some way in which Chevy trucks are superior. You might be mildly curious and suggest that maybe you weren't as right as you 'SLAP'—the little man back-hands you. You are confused and can't quite remember why they thought Chevy's were better. A few moments later you are handed another Twinkie when you nod your head and smile at a Ford commercial. 

Eventually you would learn to effectively avoid anything that resembled support of Chevys and chase down things that told you Ford was the best. You might gravitate toward certain news stations that tell good news about Fords and Bad news about Chevys.

We all have this little man with us at all times—slapping us and giving us Twinkies. It's called confirmation bias. Our brain experiences cognitive pain when it sees information that undermines our perspective and pleasure when it finds information that assures us we are correct. The brain is not wired to be logical, it is wired to not change its perspective. We like to think that we are logical, but every time we actually consider evidence that undermines our perspective, it is a fight to see it. It's a fight because a) we don't want to be slapped and b) we want a Twinkie.   

Sad for us, but for those interested in leaning back toward objective thinking there is a tell. If you are actually considering the evidence objectively, it will hurt. If you are actually processing information about Chevys in an objective way, then the little man will be slapping you incessantly.

No pain, no objective thought.

 

Incentives

Willpower has never served me well. Not that I don't know how to work. I was raised on a farm, summers were spent working. But it is easier to do work when someone is saying that if you don't then there will be consequences. These are called incentives. The world mostly runs on them. 

For some reason I long carried around an arrogance toward incentives: that using them meant you were somehow inferior, lazy, lacking in self discipline or willpower. Consequently when I was going to school and working for myself, if no one was expecting me to be out of bed before 10:00 AM, there was almost no way I could get out of bed before 10:00 AM. No matter how much willpower I applied to the situation at seven or eight in the morning, there was no movement.

Then one day I got an idea and made a deal with Courtney, "If I am not out of bed by 7:30 tomorrow, I have to give you $50 of my spending money." The next morning, the decision about what to do at 7:30 was not difficult. The pain of losing $50 was greater than the pain of getting out of bed.

Incentives work, so I use them all the time now. Mostly in the moment I will use the $50 deal to curb any short term bad habits. Courtney has jumped on board as well. If there are any sugary treats in the house, and she has had a lot of them recently, she will make a $50 deal that she can't have any sugar-based food for a few days. 

I've seen this work well with guitar students as well. A few of my students enjoy practicing at the get go, but I have seen parents who straight up bribe their kids to practice for the first year or so. They complain all the way just like the other students, but they lean into it because they really want that pretzel from Jojo's, their reward for accomplishing their weekly goals.  They've been given an appropriate incentive long enough that the task required to get the incentive has become a habit, automatic, requiring no willpower once started. Habits are where incentives compound and pay off. 

So what have been my results? About five years ago I was in the situation I described above where I could hardly get out of bed before 10:00. Now most mornings I am rarely in bed after 7:30 and many mornings up and exercising by 7:00. I don't go crazy on exercise, just 10 to 15 minutes. But compound that over several months, and I have more energy, I feel better, and my stress levels have gone down significantly.

Whatever your incentive is, it has to work for uniquely you. It has to be either rewarding or painful enough to you  in order to make sure you do or don't do the thing. Also I'd recommend that you make shorter goals and keep recommitting to them. Making a $50 deal for something that lasts more than 24 hours just makes me obsess about the thing that I can't or have to do, whearas under 24 hours it just works like a little buzzer to wake my brain up when I start to act on the bad habit. In any case, experiement with what works for you.

Balance

Balance

Casually tossing out, "It's all about balance" while talking about a tough or controversial subject is often mental laziness disguised as some sort of prudence .

Some problems:

  1. One end of the spectrum in discussion might just be a horrible idea to begin with. "When it comes to doing meth made with toilet bowl cleaner..."
  2. How I've tended to use the line typically suggests that it's somewhere smack dab in the middle of my current purview, which suggests my spectrum is the entirety of the spectrum.
  3. It typically suggests that the two listed positions are the only possibilities to consider. It traps future conversation within those two possibilities.
  4. It tries to wrap up a complex issue with a neat bow rather than ending a conversation with, "well this needs further exploration." If I don't have time or don't want to spend the time on further exploration then I can just say that. No need to pat my ego and pretend I solved something.
  5. We will nearly always feel that whatever position we've picked is the state of balance. Any sort of movement on a position will for a good while feel uncomfortable and "wrong" even after we've been convinced of the idea.

Be Bored

Today I made a goal to be bored. This is difficult to do. But I did. Yay me. 

Boredom is important. When I let myself be bored, I realized I was sad about some things and afraid of other things. Boredom wasn't the root sensation, it was simply a desire to run faster than the emotion bears instead of dealing with them.

Boredom makes me more creative.  When you get bored you start to pay attention to tinier details. The brain tries to occupy itself. Like when I used to rip up pieces of grass and braid them while watching my brother's soccer games. 

Boredom let's me enjoy the past and the future. The space allows me to remember good times gone by. I can also daydream about a thing I'm going to get to do. The thought of a past or future event can be just as pleasant as the event itself (often more so).

So go be bored. It might end up being fun.

 

 

 —grow like trees

 

Productivity Schedule

Any day I fill this out, I get my important work done.


Donald Miller took six months to write his first couple of books, a year to write another, two years to write the next. It kept getting worse. So he studied productivity and developed a daily schedule and sheet to fill out before he started his work. He wrote his next book in four months. He now gives the schedule away for free.

Filling out this sheet daily cuts through the fear and distraction. It helps me re-focus on what is important with a simple mind trick: "If I were living today over, I would...." then you list with new clarity what really matters to you. It's not aspirational. It actually assumes you are going to do what you always do and screw the day up. Only now you get to time travel imaginatively and do it over again. I know, it sounds stupid. And yet it has worked so well.

You also list things that you will get to enjoy that day. Again, simple, but powerful. You can do your hard work knowing that you are going to still get to enjoy life. (Or like me you can hit a wall and realize you don't know how to enjoy life and need to learn.)

Download it. Print it. It takes 5 minutes to fill out each day once you get rolling.

2 Eggs/Toast/Siracha

This habit was the genesis of my morning routine.

I read an interview with Ira Glass about really mundane stuff. Like what he eats for breakfast. As it turns out, he eats the exact same thing every morning. Also, he eats the same thing for lunch every day. Also, he wears pretty much the same outfit every day. How boring.

Well except for the fact that he is the creator of This American Life, deservedly the top podcast in the world.

Ira's breakfast complacency wasn't some quirk of his personality. He wasn't in love with whatever his standard breakfast and lunch were. And actually it wasn't even that he had a strict nutritional plan. It was about limiting choices.

The brain has a limited reserve of energy each day that it can dedicate to choices. The catch is that it doesn't recognize whether a choice is important or not. So if you decide what to have for breakfast, what to wear, what station to listen to, and then in the evening decide whether or not to buy a house, your brain will say, "I don't care. Just pick one."

And you end up getting stuck with a money pit of a home—in part because having a new and exciting every morning is important to you.

Okay, a bit dramatic—but still actually not that far off. In high school I saw an all state athlete who could normally bench 250 get stuck underneath 45lbs (that is after he had lifted it 150 times at the end of a workout). Your brain has limits.

100 years ago this didn't matter.

According to Daniel Levinton, we receive 5 times the amount of information that we received in 1985. As if the 80s weren't overstimulating enough.

Having 2 eggs with siracha and toast every day might seem laughable as a significant exercise, but it is another decision that my brain can put on cruise control. Also, it requires zero mental energy for me to cook perfect over easy eggs at this point. It's just one less thing I have to worry about.

Exercise

I always have an Excuse
To not Exercise

  1. I don't have the time/energy.
  2. For the first two weeks, this was accurate. But now, I don't know how I'd have the time/energy without daily exercise.
    My payoff for exercising has been a significant increase in physical, emotional, and intellectual energy. And all I typically do is 10 to 20 minutes a day of a moderate workout. Which means that the work I do is more efficient, which means I naturally get things done faster, which means I have more time.

  3. I'm not self disciplined enough.
  4. I won't bore you with explaining a study like this (insert Link), but I have found my own willpower to be minimal. I've tried new commitments to exercise in fits and starts with limited success. Inevitably my willpower gave out. For a time I couldn't even get out of bed before 10am.

    So how do I do it? Incetives and Habit. (insert link to other article).

  5. I can't afford a gym membership/equipment.
  6. My wife told me to try pilates. I thought that was a wussy thing to do. Then I tried it and my body hurt everywhere. Throw away your pride; you don't need anything but a floor (I only just bought a mat and a medicine ball a few weeks ago).

    The only thing I think I will spend money on is probably a couple of sessions with a personal trainer so I don't relive the three days I couldn't walk due to an exercise back injury.

    So what have been the results?



    • My brain is healthier and more focused.
    • I am happier.
    • I am more creative.
    • I have greater physical/mental/emotional endurance
    • Chronic back problems have nearly disappeared.
    • Even though I'm not on any sort of "diet" at all, when I decide what to eat I feel a stronger desire for healthier food. (At Thanksgiving I only had a single plate of food with small servings, because that's what I actually wanted. And I ended up enjoying Thanksgiving dinner more than I usually do.)

Coding

I'm learning to code.
And it has everything to do with making music.

I asked a smart friend, "What is a skill that 10 years from now pays high hourly, is flexible, and mobile?" He responded with a text of 4 different coding languages. So for the past two months I've been working my way through freecodecamp as a starter.

So what does this have to do with making music?

Markets and art have a strange relationship.

The market–people buying and selling things–does not always reward great or important art. And even when it does, it's not always within the lifetime of the creator. Vincent Van Gogh sold 1 beautiful painting "The Red Vinyard." A host of other now multi million dollar pieces sat for years. The market did not reward him during his lifetime.

Forgive me if this sounds like hubris, but I want to make great music. But from all I've learned about people who made really great things, I might stumble upon something great and a) never know it and/or b) never have it rewarded by the market. Even knowing these things, I think it is worth it to make the attempt with the entirety of my life. Writers and painters and musicians gave me language that have helped me navigate life, I want to do the same for others.

So if it's worth the sacrifice and struggle, I then have a responsibility to find a way forward. No one owes me this. My community owes me kindness, compassion, and honest words of encouragement or even rebuke— but they do not owe me the privilege of gallivanting around the Midwest with a guitar in the back seat.

But I have to put food on the table.

So I try to be smart about it, to find a way to pay the bills, to live simple, to save for what's necessary, but to still have significant time to dedicate to making music and words and experiences for people. My life is not ruined if I have to work a J-O-B to support my important work for the rest of my life. So I keep looking for high hourly wage work that is flexible—guitar lessons, coding. And incidentally on the days that I recognize that these J-O-B-S make this frivilous journey possible, I am grateful for them.

Coffee

Oh, sweet caffeinated dew dripping from the lillies of heaven and into my mug.

There is really no particular reason I include this in my morning routine other than that magical aroma, a warm mug in your hands, that oh so smooth finish of a properly roasted bean. I don't actually need the caffeine. After exercise and a cold shower I'm pretty juiced up and ready to go.

Not everything in life has to be about being more productive.

Meditation

Picture a monk on everest saying "llama llama."

This is not that.

Lets strip our notions away for a second. I define mediation as: Setting your attention on one thing"

There are a lot of more and less strange ways of doing this. But at its core, meditation is about getting all the thought junk out so you can focus on what matters most to you.

How I meditate:

The weirder edge of what I do is a breathing technique taken from a crazy guy named Wim Hoff. Wim can also hold his breath underwater for 7 minutes and climb beyond the Everest death zone in only shorts, socks, and shoes. I'm not even kidding.
While I don't plan on doing any of these things anytime soon. I've found that starting with two minutes of his breathing technique helps my mind focus. I could offer an explanation, but basically it just works for me. That's the best I can give you.

From there I typically meditate on God, but allow that focus to mingle with whatever is going on in life at that point.

Side note: Even if you are an agnostic/atheist, meditating on a loving deity—even one you think is a bunch of baloney—actually strengthens in a visible way the physical parts of your brain that deal with empathy, self-control, and compassion. Whereas meditating on a primarily angry deity weakens the same physical structures. Consequently, more fundamentalist sects of any given religion are actually more prone to more devient types of behavior. The CIA has often found pretty deviant porn on the computers of Islamic terrorists.

I don't offer this as a proof of any deity's existence, just an interesting phenomena.

Meditation is difficult for Westerners. We value clear ideas spoken out loud, particularly within Christian tradition. The meditation I've found helpful and transforming has more to do with images than words. If I am leaning more toward the prayer side of things, trying to manifest something spiritual into the physical world, I might picture a sick friend and imagine a cloud of sickness leaving their body. I could just ask God to take away their sickness, but the imaginative process allows me to feel a greater connection to the person I am praying for.

Too weird for you? Well it doesn't have to be. Even the practice of picturing any image and returning your attention to that image over and over when your mind wanders, trains your brain to focus.

Even just a few minutes of mediation each day gives increased ability to focus the rest of the day. So whether it is for religious reasons, or just to improve your brain's ability to focus, 10m a day is a small price to pay.

Morning Routine

I thought this might be helpful to share. It's what I do every morning. And for the record I actually don't feel like I have that much willpower or self discipline. In fact the opposite, which is why I lean so heavily on a strong routine that becomes habit. I'll be updating the links from time to time (every item on the routine will be clickable). So check back in from time to time.

Close

As I left the print shop that sits two streets over from my house, I saw the guy who does my taxes heading into his office, and then thought about my eye doctor (3/4 block south, 1/2 block west) where my new contacts are waiting for me. 

At this point, if Courtney and I moved 5 blocks from our current apartment, it would feel like an entirely different world. Our life is organized primarily by geographical imminence, things being physically close. Like if I were really good golfer with a clear shot, I could tee off from our back yard and hit my office, my eye doctor, my church, my accountant, the coffee shop I haunt frequently, plus 5 really good taco joints. Not to mention several friends, who would either be angry or impressed that I could strike the ball (and their left temple) with such accuracy. 

The whole experiment has taught me that our culture has forgotten how significant geographical distance, as opposed to how much time it takes to get somewhere, is. Even within the home (the size of which has tripled even as people have less children), the amount of space we allow ourselves affects how close we are. When people funneled into the same spaces during mundane tasks, small conversations happen that sometimes lead to bigger things, I submit the proverbial work water cooler conversation as evidence. I even suspect the fact that Courtney and I share a single sink in a small bathroom has shaped our relationship. Being "with someone" when there is no specific agenda—dinner plans, work project, religious gathering—is a form of being with that we rarely encounter, unless of course you start to shape life around physical closeness.

Christmas is about physical closeness. Thanksgiving is far enough in the past that families have forgotten the experience and plan yet another meal together. (By the end of the day they have not only remembered but relived the former tragedy of a meal and decide its best to put off another one until the following November when father's headache has subsided). Churches do this crazy thing where they make you see the people you attend with on a day other than Sunday morning. And often the season inspires people (who have also forgotten about the last get together) to spend hundreds of dollars and several hours on a flying proximity enhancer that also happens to carry banshee children. It's as if for a weekend someone in the heart of the Western world flips a giant switch that turns on a great relational magnet that forces us to reduce the typical physical space between us. 

It is sad that this magnet is typically only plugged into the end of a string of Christmas lights. 

Cue the 1950's Christmas music piano.

Because isn't that what Christmas is ALL about? Well, no. It is about a great many things. But one of the things that it is about is closeness, the great inconvenience and pain of deity being "with us". Because for all of the bumping into each other, fumbling over each other, getting in each others way—no technology can replace the infinite nuance of being physically with those you deeply care about.