Ten posts on the way to the best years of my life

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images


The scarcest resource we have isn’t money or time or some precious metal. It’s attention.

In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. Only forty!

That one statistic captures why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time. Since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

One way I help myself to pay attention, to be more mindful and aware of something, is to write about it. A few hours of writing and the feedback over time helps make the ideas stick.

Here, in order, are the ten posts I’ve written that have helped me pay more attention to things that matter, things that make for a better life. Each heading is a link. I hope that some of them might help you too.

1. “Do you think today is just another day in your life?”

The one video I link to in the post has help me reframe each day and increase my chances of appreciating it.

2. Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

I taped the three quotes in this post to a cabinet in my office. They remind me to control my reactions and help me maintain a more balanced perspective.

3. When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

This was one of my favorite posts to write, particularly citing the story of M. Deschamps and connecting it to quantum physics and social networks. It  made me more mindful of the often unwitting, unintended influence I have on others and that they have on me.

4. Taming the hamsters in my head

Writing this helped me tune into my inner critic and learn how to cut him off before he does too much damage.

5. Changing the habit of hurrying

Learning to be present is by far the most difficult thing I’m trying to do. This post reminded me of how everyday moments can be opportunities to practice.

6. The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” It seemed ludicrous at first and yet now I often repeat it to myself as a way to channel the energy of worrying into action.

7. A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

This post helped me be aware that once-in-a-lifetime, wondrous moments can be experienced on any given day.

8. The prisons I build myself

I was uncomfortable writing this. It made me starkly aware of the limitations I place on myself and how that affects others too.

9. Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

It’s taken me a long time to understand that happiness isn’t something that happens to you but something you must actively cultivate.

10. When are the best years of your life?

I think of this post often. As a result of writing it, I know the answer is hidden in all of the other posts I’ve listed above. The best years won’t be when I make the most money or have the best vacation or reach a big milestone. The best years will be when I’m more mindful, more generous, and more connected. This post helped me know that the it’s up to me. The best years of my life could start right now.

I’m still waiting for them to call my name

I think it started when I was four years old. I remember one day, before I could read, flipping through some illustrated encyclopedia because I liked the pictures. My mother lavished praise on me. Then she mentioned the incident to friends and family members.

I was hooked.

From then on, like a trained lab animal, I would tap the “smart kid” bar to get my reward in the form of some kind of praise or recognition. It became a strange form of addiction. Doing the extra credit. Raising my hand faster than the other kids. Beating the adults at Scrabble.

Fast forward to the end of college, an awards ceremony at Columbia University. They were announcing the people graduating with distinction: cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. “With praise, with great praise, with greatest praise.” My heart raced.

Graduation dayAs they announced the names, I looked at the small booklet they handed to everyone. It listed all of the people graduating, and next to those being recognized there was one or more asterisks. My name didn’t have any. I clearly remember thinking there was some mistake. I had a 3.67 GPA. Surely that was good enough for something!

Fast forward 28 years, and I’m still waiting for them to call my name.

Now I’m at work, trying to do something I care about, and I get upset if they don’t reach down and pat me on the head. All my attempts at self-development and I’m still a four-year-old boy. Worse still, I’m not even sure who “they” are. At this point in my life, whose praise and recognition do I really need?

I look in the mirror and coach myself, something I’m doing more often these days.

It’s time to grow up, Johnny boy. You’re 50.

Stop waiting to be picked.

Focus on the contribution you can make. Focus on shipping and getting better. Focus on helping other people.

Do it for them. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Run. 

Don’t wait for the applause.

Run!

A gift from Imabari

An encounter with an old woman in a small Japanese port city taught me a lesson about giving and receiving gifts, and what the word contribution can mean.

I was with my good friend Greg on our annual trip to some of the most wondrous parts of Japan. After several stops in Shikoku, we were heading to the Seto Islands and needed to catch a ferry in Imabari, a place famous for towels of all things. Imabari no taoru would be appreciated by our relatives in Kobe and Tokyo, and we bought some in a small store dedicated to this source of local pride.

Greg purchased our tickets. He’s fluent in Japanese and can navigate the complex timetables and transportation options whereas I’m limited to basic transactions like ordering food. We waited by ourselves near the water.

After a few minutes, an old woman with a cane and several bags approached us and started talking. She was at least 80 years old, perhaps much older. I couldn’t understand her and my first instinct was that she wanted something from us. But Greg explained she was just making small talk. Then she fished inside her purse, pulled out a small wooden carving, and handed it Greg.

The Gift from Imabari

She told us that her husband carved them and she liked to hand them out to people who would be traveling or living abroad. Her husband liked knowing that his small creations were spreading around the world, and she was pleased that I was from New York. So she looked for another one to give to me. After a fruitless search in her large bag (“I always carry more with me,” she said, disappointedly) she unstrapped the one from her mobile phone and handed it to me.

We thanked her but felt compelled to offer her something in return. Greg asked if we could pay for them. She looked at him soberly, “If you give me money, I can’t let you have them.”

We quickly recovered from our blunder and talked a bit more about the carvings before the ferry came. The boat filled with schoolchildren as we made stops at several islands, and I marveled at the gorgeous scenery and at a life where people commuted this way.

A different way to commute

Our destination was a small island called Yuge. As we exited the boat, I saw the old woman, by herself, carrying her bags and her cane and heading up the steep ramp. I ran up to her calling “Sumimasen!”  (“Excuse me!”), and carried her things. At the top of the ramp, we smiled, bowed towards each other, and said goodbye.

Now, I carry that little wooden carving wherever I go. It reminds me of the gifts available to me every day, and that I can experience connections and other beautiful moments if only I’m open to accepting them.

Yuge

I like to think we gave her a different kind of gift, our own small contribution. I imagine her coming home, relating a story about the two foreigners she met at the Imabari ferry, and telling her husband that two of his creations would be going on a journey soon.

#thankyouthursday

Every Thursday at work, I take a few minutes and think of someone I would like to thank publicly. Then I write a short post on our enterprise social network and tag it with #thankyouthursday. Over time, more people at work are offering thanks that way too.

It’s not an original idea. There’s a thankyouthursday.org and a Facebook group and, of course, the fourth Thursday of every November in the US.

My hope is that this post will help you implement your own version of #thankyouthursday at your company or with your friends and family.

Solving the recognition paradox

Inside large organizations, there’s a recognition paradox. Everyone says there should be more recognition of people and their good work, but few people do anything about it. Instead of thanking and recognizing each other, we limit ourselves to Recognition Programs created by Human Resources.

But in an era of self-publishing, it’s easier than ever to change this.

In a recent session on twitter, people who work with social networks inside companies came together online and one topic was about the simple contributions people can make. That reminded me of #thankyouthursday.

thankyouthursday tweet

Steal Like An Artist

About 18 months ago, I wrote about another idea I hoped would spread. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, I adapted a kind of discussion on Reddit called Ask Me Anything for use inside our firm.

Since then, over 80 executives have participated in open online discussions where anyone at the company can ask them anything. Those discussions are often rich and authentic, with dozens of questions and thousands of people looking on.

Better still, many other firms now use the same technique. They too stole like artists, further adapting Ask Me Anythings to suit their particular organizations. Now I hope the same thing happens with #thankyouthursday.

Creating your own culture of gratitude

Every week, reading all the different notes makes me feel better about where I work and feel more connected to the people there. The small investment I make thanking someone is repaid 100-fold.

To get this feeling yourself, you don’t need to wait for anyone to give you permission or create a program. Just start by scheduling a few minutes every Thursday. Then say thank you in a way that’s convenient and authentic for you. Here are simple instructions from thankyouthursday.org:

“Every Thursday, take an intentional moment to acknowledge those who you are thankful for. Send an email, post a note on Facebook, send them a message on Twitter, give them a call, stop by their desk… etc.

Simply take the time to thank those who have impacted you in big or small ways.”

Say thank you. Whether you do this with friends and family or at work, you’ll be creating your own culture of gratitude that’s good for everyone.

thankyouthursday tag

Why people are mean at work and what you can do about it

I confess to listening in on people. Like some urban anthropologist, I try to glean what’s happening in people’s lives from the fragments of what they talk about walking down the street, eating lunch, or at the coffee shop near the office.

Like a poke in the eyeThe thing they seem to talk about most is other people, often replaying conversations that have made them upset.

“Do you believe what he said?”

“She can’t talk to me that way!”

“Who does he think he is?”

While the details are mostly trivial, the anger and hurt can be substantial, with themes of disrespect and mistrust coming up again and again.

Here’s why this happens so often, and what you can do the next time someone is mean to you at work.

5 reasons people are mean to you

Meanness, it seems, knows no limits. It’s not correlated to a particular demographic or occupation. People are mean in restrooms, conference rooms, and boardrooms. Here are five common causes.

It’s not personal

Perhaps the most common cause of meanness is that someone who’s mean doesn’t see you as a person. A fascinating study showed how easy it is for young boys to quickly form tribes and then label, objectify, and mistreat the other side. On a positive note, the same study also showed how how simple humanizing measures switched the behavior from negative to positive.

They were conditioned to be mean

Perhaps their boss does it to them and, over time, they believe that’s how things are done. If people in authority are mean often enough, a culture of meanness is created and the bad behavior spreads throughout an organization like a virus. Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience? Your boss may be a jerk because the management environment systematically produces that behavior.

Their world is small

Small issues loom large in a small world. Cloistered behind a title and a desk, some managers’ lack of perspective turns little things into crises. Even the smallest problems are marked URGENT and need to be handled ASAP, inflating their sense of self-importance and reinforcing their control over you.

They’re suffering

The next time someone is rude to you, it could be for a reason you simply don’t know about. Perhaps their job is terrible, they’re ill, or something tragic happened in their life. You have no idea what their story truly is.

It’s a mis-communication

I was in the middle of a phone conversation with a colleague and I could hear her talking with someone else. I kept speaking but she didn’t stop. “How rude!” I thought, getting increasingly irritated on the phone. “How could she?” I fumed, preparing a sarcastic rebuke for when she returned to our conversation.

Then I noticed my phone was on mute. And I wondered how many other times I was sure someone had slighted me and it was just a mis-communication.

The best thing you can do

No matter the reason, when someone is mean to you your feelings of hurt and anger are real. Even after those feelings subside, something else lingers: a sense of detachment. If you’re hurt often enough, you protect yourself by caring less.

It’s a costly strategy. As you numb the pain, you deaden the very sensations that allow you to savor work and life.

I’m tempted to use this strategy all the time. Just this week, for example, I got a message that made me tap into my Bronx roots and think: “Well, **** you. Who the hell are you to be snotty and unappreciative?” Feeling my pulse quicken, I stopped and smiled. The curt email was serving as a helpful reminder to practice three things I’ve learned recently.

“It’s only got the power you give it.”

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”

When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.

I looked around. I was in a place filled with smart, engaging people who inspired me and here I was getting angry over an email.

“It’s a choice, John,” I reminded myself.  I can’t control if other people are mean, but I can choose how I react to it. So I waited a while, wrote a constructive, positive note, and moved on. Instead of wasting my time and energy on something negative, I invested in talking and collaborating with people who make my work and life better.

This time, I chose wisely.