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

Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

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.”

The road rage chronicles

I’m embarrassed to tell these stories, but I’m sharing them for two reasons.

One is that I’m conscious of the social media effect, a tendency to share an idealized version of one’s self. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, and I would rather be honest and ashamed than inauthentic and admired.

The other reason is to show how changing habits is possible even when they’ve been deeply-rutted over several decades.

Route I-95N

1988: Route I-95N 

After college, I was living in the Bronx and would commute each day to Bell Labs in Middletown, NJ, 55 miles each way. Coming home, I would fight traffic on the NJ Turnpike, then at the bridge, then on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

I remember times when I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration. Though I had chosen where I worked and where I lived, and though I knew there was always going to be traffic on that route, I could not accept it.

1990s: It’s other people’s fault

Over the ensuing years, it wasn’t just traffic that bothered me, but other people. How dare they try to cut into my lane! I would tailgate the person in front of me to block them. Oh, the slow drivers! I would flash my brights to punish them.

Once, as I was double-parked, a person honked. There was plenty of room to get by! I muttered something I thought was under my breath until the gentleman got out of his car, kicked my door, and threatened to kill me.

2004: Late on the Upper East Side

Circling in upper Manhattan, looking for a space, I’m late for an appointment. I can’t be late. Yes, I should have left earlier, but I can’t be late. I continue circling and miss a spot, and I hit the steering wheel so hard the horn goes off and won’t stop. Now I’m driving on Park Avenue with a blaring horn, humiliated as well as late.

I realized I couldn’t keep acting this way. Something had to change.

2015: The Henry Hudson Parkway

Now, I regularly drive on the Henry Hudson Parkway and still face traffic and bad drivers. But much of my bad behavior is gone. The impulses are still there, but over ten years I’ve gradually managed to react to those same triggers in a different way.

Traffic? I always have TED talks with me and a delay means more learning and entertainment. A rude driver? I imagine they may be rushing to the hospital, or have a frustrating life, and my anger evaporates.

Over time, small changes to my driving environment and to my responses (“If this happens next time, I will do this…”) have added up to me being calmer and safer.

I’m no saint. If the kids are screaming or playing loudly or doing what kids do, I still struggle sometimes not to floor it and scare the hell out of them. But small changes, practiced constantly over time, have made a big difference.