The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?”

She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that maid me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends – smart and accomplished – would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading “be free where you are” comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I’m not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert.

They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here.
I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to ‘add’ to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. “Are you serious? Will you really practice?” I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride

Asking for help

If the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that you have one, then consider this a first step for me.

This week, I’m asking for advice instead of giving it.

unnamed

 

Good news, bad news

Most of the work I’ve done on Working Out Loud has been solitary. Writing, Giving talks. Sending out books and peer support guides via email. Many people have contributed ideas and shaped this work – the acknowledgments are several pages long – yet looking back I see I’ve been doing things largely alone.

That worked well up until now. The book is finally ready (just need to approve the physical cover before it’s available on Amazon) and peer support groups are gradually spreading across 7 countries. There may be 1,000 of them by the end of the year.

But to help the millions of people I want to help, the movement needs things I can’t give it, or at least that I’m not good at. It needs better logistics, beautifully-designed materials, engaging short videos, and a long list of other things. Doing everything myself is limiting how quickly we can spread the practice and help more people. I have to make some changes.

When I ask & when I don’t

It’s not that I don’t like working with other people. I ask for help all the time – Would you mind looking at this draft? I’ve even written about ways to ask for help.

But usually I limit my requests to things that are reasonably small, like asking for ideas and opinions. When it comes to asking someone to do work, I freeze. I can pay someone to produce videos, for example, but even then I’m afraid of…something. Maybe it won’t be worth it. Maybe it won’t come out well. So I’m more comfortable doing it myself – “I’ll go to YouTube bootcamp!”

That approach will take too long as there’s too much I don’t know. Although I’ll benefit from the learning involved in doing things myself, if I’m going to help more people I’ll need to let go, take more risks, and start forming a team.

What would you do?

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter, deliverer of an excellent TED talk, wrote a helpful, intensely personal book called The Art of Asking based in part on her years as a performance artist on the street asking for contributions. This quote may hold some of the answers to why I’m reluctant to ask for help:

“Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.”

And this one:

 

“What was the difference between asking and begging?

A lot of people related their experience with their own local buskers: they saw their tips into the hat not as charity but as payment for a service.

If asking is a collaboration, begging is a less-conected demand. Begging can’t provide value to the giver; by definition, it offers no exchange….Asking is an act of intimacy and trust.”

Whether the issues are shame or trust or fear, it’s time for me to get over them. So here’s a commitment I’m going to make to myself:

  1. Pick the top 3 things I need to get done to improve and scale the Working Out Loud movement.
  2. Actively look for people who can help me.
  3. Trust enough to ask them to contribute or collaborate with me (paid or free).

What would you do? How do reach out to people to ask them to contribute or collaborate, to build something together that’s bigger than anything you could do alone?

Happiness & The Two Kinds of Love

As I try to understand what makes people happier and how to put that into practice for myself, I’ve learned from books on neuroscience and cognitive behavioral therapy, on Buddhism and Stoicism, and on changing habits and mindsets.

One book had a chapter on love that seems particularly important.

Perrault Leon Jean Basile Cupids Arrows

Passionate love

“Passionate love is the kind you fall into,” writes Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful and useful book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

“Passionate love is a drug. Its symptoms overlap with those of heroin and cocaine. It’s no wonder: Passionate love alters the activity of several parts of the brain, including parts that are involved in the release of dopamine…if passionate love is a drug – literally a drug – it has to wear off eventually.”

He asserts that, physically, the brain adapts to such drugs and so the powerful feelings must, naturally, fade. “Nobody can stay high forever.”

Compassionate love

The other kind of love is compassionate love and it, too, is based on biological systems that have evolved over many millennia.

“Compassionate love grows slowly over the years as lovers apply their attachment and caregiving systems to each other, and as they begin to rely upon, care for, and trust each other.

If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for compassionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together.”

Which one is the true love?

Haidt highlights how, because people are unaware of the different kinds of love, there’s a risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. These are the danger points in the graph below. We commit too soon, perhaps, feeling we’ve found true love and want to keep that feeling forever. Or when the fire is no longer blazing, we fear that love wasn’t true love in the first place, and we leave to seek another.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 127

From looking at this graph, compassionate love looks woefully unrewarding. Perhaps, to paraphrase an old expression, it’s better to have passionately loved and lost than never to passionately loved at all.

But knowing that the two loves are distinct, and that they have natural biological underpinnings based on our humanness, can help us gain perspective and make better choices.

“Passionate love does not turn into compassionate love. Passionate love and compassionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses.”

Looking at love over the course of a life instead of over the course of six months or a year can provide that different perspective. That graph looks very different.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 128

Haidt doesn’t reject passionate love. It’s just not enough for long enough. When it comes to love, long-term happiness comes from compassionate love. If you can occasionally feel passionate about that person as well, that’s all the better.

“True love exists, I believe, but it is not – cannot be – passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong compassionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.”

My role model for a better career and life

He grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, studied history at the University of Georgia, and took his first job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2006. A few years later, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was laid off.

Without much money and with few prospects of getting another financial job at the time, he decided to try something different.

His name is Brandon Stanton, and what he did next is an example of how I’d like to approach work and life.

Brandon Stanton

A goal of getting better at something

Before he lost his job, he had purchased a nice camera and enjoyed taking photos while walking around Chicago, so he decided his goal would be to practice his hobby as he traveled around the United States. Like many thousands of people interested in photography, Brandon’s first idea was to create a photo blog based on his travels in different cities:

My first stop was New Orleans, then Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia. Each time I arrived in a new city, I’d get lost in the streets and photograph everything that looked interesting, taking nearly a thousand photographs every day. After each day of shooting, I’d select thirty or forty of my favorite photographs and post them on Facebook. I named the albums after my first impression of each city. Pittsburgh was Yellow Steel Bridges. Philadelphia was Bricks and Flags. I had no big ambitions at the time. All I had was some vague, naive idea of making a living by selling prints of my best photos. In the meantime, I was just posting them for my family and friends to enjoy.

He had other ideas too, including plotting ten thousand street portraits on an interactive map to create a photographic census of the city. But it was only through actually doing the work, posting it publicly on Facebook, and getting feedback that he started to try other things. Along with the usual city scenes, he started taking candid street portraits. When those portraits received a favorable response, he started asking his subjects questions and including snippets of the interview with each photo.

By the time he arrived in New York in August 2010, almost all of his photographs were of people. He created a new album on Facebook and then another one. He decided to call these albums “Humans of New York.” He never intended to stay in New York, but by the end of the summer, after a short trip to Chicago to collect his things, he moved back to New York for good.

Purposeful discovery

Brandon’s goal kept evolving. Without any formal training in photography, he gradually kept learning to take better photos while also learning how to approach people. (“At first, the rejections sting,” he said.) By early 2012, what started as simple online photo albums had attracted thirty thousand likes. By April of that year, it was sixty thousand, and other people started to copy his work, creating Humans of Copenhagen, Humans of Tel Aviv, and more. Such groups helped to further spread the word about Brandon and his work. By the fall of 2013, the number of Facebook fans had skyrocketed to over a million people.

Brandon was still shooting photos, but now other things became possible, including the launch of a book, an “inspiring collection of photographs and stories capturing the spirit of a city,” that became a number-one New York Times bestseller. He was named to Time magazine’s “30 Under 30,” attracting yet more attention and opening up more possibilities. Brandon reflected on how he was able to change his life in a way that was not possible before:

Humans of New York is an amazing story, and it’s a story that could not have happened ten years ago. Without social media, I’d probably just be a quirky amateur photographer with a hard drive full of photos. I’d be cold-calling respected publications, begging for a feature. I may have even quit by now. Instead, I’ve discovered a daily audience of nearly a million people. Or should I say they discovered me.

Doing well and doing good

With the success he was experiencing, Brandon’s goal shifted again. He was starting to make money and decided early on to give some of it away, to try to do more with his photos than he had considered possible before. He described it in an online interview in 2013:

I don’t want to “cash out” or “monetize” HONY [Humans of New York]. I like to say it publicly because I want my audience to keep me on mission. HONY print sales have raised nearly $500,000 for charity in the past six months. I want to further monetize the site for nonprofit ventures. I honestly want to “give” HONY to New York in some way.

Brandon recently turned thirty-one. His Facebook page has more than thirteen million followers, and there are millions of followers on other platforms too. His third book is coming out later this year. In the summer of 2014, he went on a fifty-day world tour of twelve countries sponsored by the United Nations that included Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya, and South Sudan. Why go to these places? “The work has a very humanizing effect in places that are misunderstood or feared.” His purpose had shifted yet again, and his fans noticed it, as expressed in a comment on a photo of four women in Iraq: “You are changing the world one interview at a time. I am very grateful.”

A path to a good life

I am unlike Brandon in many ways. I’m much older, have five kids, and work in a large global corporation. But I can follow a similar path to discovering meaning and fulfillment.

Brandon made his work visible, and the feedback on it helped him get better while also helping him develop his network. He was generous with his work, posting it freely, and also generous with the eventual proceeds from that work. Importantly, he used his initial goal as a step toward exploring a range of possibilities that might be more meaningful and fulfilling. As a result of that exploration, in just over three years, he fundamentally changed his career and life—from out-of-work bond trader to beloved photographer, author, and philanthropist.

That’s the kind of path I aspire to take. We’ll see where it goes.