From Seneca, Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears:
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also…he is always getting ready to live.”
How often do you set plans for change in you life that will start…wait for it…tomorrow?
Life is short, as everyone knows. When I was a kid I used to wonder about this. Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?
Since there didn’t seem any way to answer this question, I stopped wondering about it. Then I had kids. That gave me a way to answer the question, and the answer is that life actually is short.
Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.
Ok, so life actually is short. Does it make any difference to know that?
It has for me. It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.
When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is “bullshit.” I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character. There’s something fake about it. It’s the junk food of experience. 
If you ask yourself what you spend your time on that’s bullshit, you probably already know the answer. Unnecessary meetings, pointless disputes, bureaucracy, posturing, dealing with other people’s mistakes, traffic jams, addictive but unrewarding pastimes.
There are two ways this kind of thing gets into your life: it’s either forced on you or it tricks you. To some extent you have to put up with the bullshit forced on you by circumstances. You need to make money, and making money consists mostly of errands. Indeed, the law of supply and demand insures that: the more rewarding some kind of work is, the cheaper people will do it. It may be that less bullshit is forced on you than you think, though. There has always been a stream of people who opt out of the default grind and go live somewhere where opportunities are fewer in the conventional sense, but life feels more authentic. This could become more common.
You can do it on a smaller scale without moving. The amount of time you have to spend on bullshit varies between employers. Most large organizations (and many small ones) are steeped in it. But if you consciously prioritize bullshit avoidance over other factors like money and prestige, you can probably find employers that will waste less of your time.
If you’re a freelancer or a small company, you can do this at the level of individual customers. If you fire or avoid toxic customers, you can decrease the amount of bullshit in your life by more than you decrease your income.
But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time on them have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life. 
Arguing online is only incidentally addictive. There are more dangerous things than that. As I’ve written before, one byproduct of technical progress is that things we like tend to become more addictive. Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions—to stand outside ourselves and ask “is this how I want to be spending my time?”
As well as avoiding bullshit one should actively seek out things that matter. But different things matter to different people, and most have to learn what matters to them. A few are lucky and realize early on that they love math or taking care of animals or writing, and then figure out a way to spend a lot of time doing it. But most people start out with a life that’s a mix of things that matter and things that don’t, and only gradually learn to distinguish between them.
For the young especially, much of this confusion is induced by the artificial situations they find themselves in. In middle school and high school, what the other kids think of you seems the most important thing in the world. But when you ask adults what they got wrong at that age, nearly all say they cared too much what other kids thought of them.
One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin.
The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call “important.” Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.
One great thing about having small children is that they make you spend time on things that matter: them. They grab your sleeve as you’re staring at your phone and say “will you play with me?” And odds are that is in fact the bullshit-minimizing option.
If life is short, we should expect its shortness to take us by surprise. And that is just what tends to happen. You take things for granted, and then they’re gone. You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed. The saddest windows close when other people die. Their lives are short too. After my mother died, I wished I’d spent more time with her. I lived as if she’d always be there. And in her typical quiet way she encouraged that illusion. But an illusion it was. I think a lot of people make the same mistake I did.
The usual way to avoid being taken by surprise by something is to be consciously aware of it. Back when life was more precarious, people used to be aware of death to a degree that would now seem a bit morbid. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t seem the right answer to be constantly reminding oneself of the grim reaper hovering at everyone’s shoulder. Perhaps a better solution is to look at the problem from the other end. Cultivate a habit of impatience about the things you most want to do. Don’t wait before climbing that mountain or writing that book or visiting your mother. You don’t need to be constantly reminding yourself why you shouldn’t wait. Just don’t wait.
I can think of two more things one does when one doesn’t have much of something: try to get more of it, and savor what one has. Both make sense here.
How you live affects how long you live. Most people could do better. Me among them.
But you can probably get even more effect by paying closer attention to the time you have. It’s easy to let the days rush by. The “flow” that imaginative people love so much has a darker cousin that prevents you from pausing to savor life amid the daily slurry of errands and alarms. One of the most striking things I’ve read was not in a book, but the title of one: James Salter’sBurning the Days.
It is possible to slow time somewhat. I’ve gotten better at it. Kids help. When you have small children, there are a lot of moments so perfect that you can’t help noticing.
It does help too to feel that you’ve squeezed everything out of some experience. The reason I’m sad about my mother is not just that I miss her but that I think of all the things we could have done that we didn’t. My oldest son will be 7 soon. And while I miss the 3 year old version of him, I at least don’t have any regrets over what might have been. We had the best time a daddy and a 3 year old ever had.
Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.
At a recent leadership retreat, I was treated to this video by Brene Brown – The Power of Vulnerability. Such a powerful message – and delivered in a light, humorous manner. This is a great way to show the power of love over fear. Pay special attention to her spotlighting the modern human’s need for ‘numbing.’
Everyone I watched this with took something unique away. What was your experience?
Let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us.
-Seneca, Letter 20
I didn’t come to know Jim Harrison like so many around the release — literary or theatrical — of Legends of the Fall, the epic drama of the American west that ushered the author into his greatest period of financial success and critical acknowledgement. In fact, it was an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain — a terrific author in his own right — that introduced me to this callous American storyteller. Bourdain’s interview encouraged me to pick up Wolf, Harrison’s (supposedly) semi-autobiographical book about a young man wandering America in search of his identity (and sex). Once completed, I proceeded to devour everything else he’d published. His prose reminded me of a soft-spoken Cormac McCarthy, with a layer of compassion and wonder for the natural world. His stories are haunting and visceral, but somehow keep the reader in awe of the small beauties that impart all the meaning to our lives.
I suppose I’ve been drawn to Harrison not only for the quality of his writing, but also for his unapologetic hunger for life. Few have the courage to live with the relish that Harrison did over the course of his 79 years. Beyond his reputation as a poet, essayist, and author, Harrison was also an avid gourmand and enjoyer of the finer tastes that life has to offer (check out his memoir The Raw and the Cooked for more on this facet of his life). Margalit Fox of The New York Times cleverly summarized the pursuits that defined his life in a series of monosyllabic words: walk, drive, hunt, fish, cook, drink, smoke, write. Could there be anything more pastoral, idyllic, and wildly inviting than a life lived to pursue these tasks?
Harrison leaves this world having had a permanent impact on my life, but also, and far more importantly, on the landscape of American literature. He was a dangerous man in every sense, and I hope I’ll have learned to live just a bit more bravely and authentically having read his words.
It’s pretty easy to figure out what you’re competing for—attention, a new gig, a promotion, a sale…
But what is your edge? In a hypercompetitive world, whatever you’re competing on is going to become your focus.
If you’re competing on price, you’ll spend most of your time counting pennies.
If you’re competing on noise, you’ll spend most of your time yelling, posting, updating, publishing and announcing.
If you’re competing on trust, you’ll spend most of your time keeping the promises that make you trustworthy.
If you’re competing on smarts, you’ll spend most of your time getting smarter.
If you’re competing on who you know, you’ll spend most of the time networking.
If you’re competing by having true fans, you’ll spend most of your time earning the trust and attention of those that care about your work.
If you’re competing on credentials, you’ll spend most of your time getting more accredited and certified.
If you’re competing on perfect, you’ll need to spend your time on picking nits.
If you’re competing by hustling, you’ll spend most of your time looking for shortcuts and cutting corners.
If you’re competing on getting picked, you’ll spend most of your day auditioning.
If you’re competing on being innovative, you’ll spend your time being curious and shipping things that might not work.
And if you’re competing on always-on responsiveness, you’ll spend your time glued to your work, responding just a second faster than the other guy.
In any competitive market, be prepared to invest your heart and soul and focus on the thing you compete on. Might as well choose something you can live with, a practice that allows you to thrive.
One of the more popular topics of discussion here at DMR is how to balance ambitious goals with a strong desire to remain mindful, humble, and grateful. At times, these two priorities can feel like oil and water and the group reading we’ve completed has yet to reveal the “silver bullet” solution that harmonizes powerful self-motivation with a balanced state of mind.
mindful ambition, the practice of maintaining awareness, humility, and gratitude in the pursuit of extraordinary accomplishment
Last week, I took a stab at providing some answers to an audience of colleagues. “Being Mindful While Making It Rain” introduces the concept of mindful ambition: the practice of maintaining awareness, humility, and gratitude in the pursuit of extraordinary accomplishment.
We cover five different elements of our lives that demand attention if we hope to pursue great accomplishment without sacrificing the energizing and grounding impact of a present mind. I also throw in five corresponding activities that can be used to introduce mindful ambition in more concrete terms: taking a success inventory, keeping a gratitude journal, reconnecting with nature, plotting your wealth columns, and (most importantly) initiating a meditation practice.
Check out the video below and download the deck so you can follow along.
Please note, the video is cut a few minutes short. Everything you missed — including helpful book and app resources — can be found in the deck PDF (link above).
From The Art of Mental Training by D.C. Gonzalez:
“Anxiety can only exist when one allows one’s thoughts to wander from the present moment and to an uncertainty of the future or some remembered failure of past.”
Similarly, from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle:
“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”
In other words: when anxiety creeps in or you are experiencing a bout of the dreaded Sunday Scaries…take a moment and observe what your thoughts are focused on.
From Tolle: “You are projecting yourself into an imaginary future situation and creating fear, but there is no way you can cope with such a situation because it doesn’t exist.”
DMR member Dan Reilly was highlighted this past weekend during an episode of KX 93.5’s recording of Talking Ventures – a live radio show and podcast covering the current trends in entrepreneurship.
You can listen to the recording here:
Or, go to iTunes > Podcasts > Talking Ventures > March 5th 2016 Episode.
Which do you want?
Freedom is the ability to set your schedule, to decide on the work you do, to make decisions.
Responsibility is being held accountable for your actions. It might involve figuring out how to get paid for your work, owning your mistakes or having others count on you.
Freedom without responsibility is certainly tempting, but there are few people who will give you that gig and take care of you and take responsibility for your work as well.
Responsibility without freedom is stressful. There are plenty of jobs in this line of work, just as there are countless jobs where you have neither freedom nor responsibility. These are good jobs to walk away from.
When in doubt, when you’re stuck, when you’re seeking more freedom, the surest long-term route is to take more responsibility.
Freedom and responsibility aren’t given, they’re taken.