Friday, May 31, 2013

Old Dog

Somewhere during early adulthood, most of us transition from being learners to be being knowers. 

We stop learning.

Many loosely tie this phenomenon to aging and physiology; as we grow older our capacity to learn diminishes. While there may be some merit to this assertion, it's a best a contributing factor, not a root cause. There are enough people who continue to learn throughout their lives to prove that aging alone does not incapacitate learning. 

Oh yeah, there's also the fact that we've pretty well systematized the transition from learner to knower. As a child you go to school and learn; as an adult you go to work and know. As a child those around you go to extremes to ensure you have the time and the resources to learn. As an adult they go to extremes to ensure that you don't

So, as a matter of course we tend to stop learning during early adulthood, mostly for what seem to be practical reasons. They seem practical because, in the near term, they are. In the long term, they're anything but practical. 


First of all, learning is a skill, not an innate capacity. Like any skill, it gets dull and rusty when not used. It can be cleaned up and sharpened, but the duller and rustier it gets, the longer it takes.

Second, the rate at which the things we know become obsolete is getting faster. It's no longer possible to learn as a child all you need to know throughout your life, even what you need to know to be employed. By the time a young adult reaches retirement age, not only will her chosen profession have changed, but it will likely have completely disappeared. The transition goes from, "Remember when doctors used to...", to, "Remember when we used to have doctors?"

Third, losing learning as a skill leads to depression and other psycho-emotional challenges. Spend time with seniors who used to be professionals and/or experts, but who stopped learning and you'll see what I mean.

Learn What?
If you're with me so far, you might be thinking, "I understand what you're saying,  but for me it is impractical to spend time learning. I don't have the time. I don't have the space. I don't have the money."

That might be true, generally. You likely don't have the time and resources to spend as much time learning as you did as a child, but nonetheless: you always have time to learn something.

The trick is choosing what to learn.

If you want to maximize your learning time and money, pick something you'd never have thought to learn or never'd have believed you could learn. The more foreign, the better.

That's the first requirement. The second is to pick something that you'd absolutely love to learn, but never did. The more foreign and lovely, the better. If it makes no sense whatsoever, then you're onto something.

The third requirement is regularity. Define a daily window of time that you can dedicate to learning what you've chosen. Better to define a short window that you can guarantee than a longer one that you can't.

The fourth requirement is to learn, not to consume. It's OK to read about or be taught as long as the reading and teaching facilitate learning through doing, not just the consumption of knowledge. If you want to maximize learning, then it's better to be taught nothing and to have to figure out what you want to learn than to simply be given the answers.

The fifth requirement is persistence. The longer it's been since you've truly learned, the harder it may seem to do so. It may indeed seem impossible. It'll pass.

Over the years, I've found that the most satisfying learning has come from ideas that seemed completely ridiculous, stupid and/or crazy at first blush. The best things to learn are indeed crazy. Unfortunately, the assertion is not symmetrical; not everything that sounds crazy is worth learning.

What will you learn next?

Happy Friday,

Thursday, May 30, 2013


A friend described a recent experience in his rural general store.

A woman from Manhattan vacationing here in the Berkshires had taken offense that his inventory didn't include many of the products she was accustomed to seeing in the city.

He apologized and offered to help her find substitutes.

She declined, or rather, ignored his offer and continued her lament.

He tried to explain that as a small business owner in an area where business traffic was sporadic, he simply couldn't afford to carry all the stock that one might carry somewhere else.

Apparently the woman had never had to make choices due budget limitations. She paused for a moment considering his statement, dismissed it as nonsensical, and then intensified her complaint from lament to rage.

At a loss for what to do next, my friend feigned stumbling into the checkout counter. He lowered his left hand to steady himself and raised his right to massage his temple.

The woman stopped talking and looked at him curiously.

He looked up at her squinting and said, "I apologize mam. My wife decided that I was not as sensitive as she'd like me to be. So last week I underwent brain-replacement surgery; they replaced my male brain with one from a female. The surgery went fine, but I'm still experiencing some of the after-affects.

The woman's face softened. She said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't even know that they could do that. No wonder you're struggling to keep your store stocked with the proper inventory."

Last night, we all sit around the kitchen table talking about passion. Lately I've been thinking a lot about passion as I've come to realize that many people I know experience significant side-effects due to its absence in their lives. The side-effects are so significant that I can get pretty passionate about passion or the absence thereof.

Everyone with me is someone whom I have considered to be passionate about what they do. However, as they talk, the little bells in my head that indicate inconsistencies in a person's statements begin to sound. One theme of inconsistency amounts to something like, "I'm passionate about thus and such; I just have a hard time getting myself to do it consistently."

For me, there's no need to replay and analyze the tape, no photo-finish. If you're passionate about something, the problem isn't getting yourself to do it; the problem is getting yourself to do other things that your passion displaces. You don't go to bed setting your alarm to ensure that you get up early to practice; you struggle to sleep because you can't wait to get up and practice.

Everyone else apparently has a different definition than I do.

As we talk, there's no debate about whether or not they experience what I would call attributes of being dispassionate. The debate is over what you call that collection of attributes.

For everyone else, the fact that you struggle to do something consistently doesn't mean you're not passionate about it. For me, its the very nature of passion is to struggle to do anything else.

Any way, I'm pretty sure that my definition probably better represents that found in the dictionary. So, I suggest that maybe we need a different word to describe what everyone else experiences.

That doesn't fly.

I slowly realize that for everyone else "passion" is more than a neutral description of a state of being. It has positive charge to it, its absence having a negative one. To be dispassionate would be a "bad" thing.

So now I'm thinking, "Wow, to be dispassionate would be so bad that it's better to change the meaning of the word passionate to include you than it is to look at your being dispassionate and change you."

In the end, it comes down to picking. You get really good at one thing because you don't spend time on other things. For some people (I would call them passionate), picking is easy. For others, well, not so much.

The non-pickers will often say things like, "I enjoy so many activities. Why should I have to choose?"

You don't.

Some non-pickers don't pick for fear of having picked wrongly. Some non-pickers don't pick because they fear failing, e.g., if I never commit to something then I can never fail because I'll always be able to say that I wasn't really trying all that hard.

When you're passionate about something (or whatever you want to call what I'm describing), you don't miss what you've not chosen and you don't fear failing because the passion isn't about the goal, it's about the process. Picking is a side-effect of passion, not vice versa.

There's a tricky part. Oftentimes passion develops only as you get good at something. Prior to getting good, the passion may spark momentarily from time to time, but you have to fan those sparks into a consistent flame.


By picking.

Happy Thursday,

Monday, May 27, 2013

What You Want

I know we've talked about this before, but based on recent experience, I think the question is worth revisiting.

The question is: What do you want?

The question is significant for several reasons. First and foremost, not knowing the answer significantly increases your likelihood of not getting it. Second, well... let's just stick with the first one for now.

So, what do you want?

Your first response may be something like, "Whatdya mean by 'what do you want?'"

That's a good question. A key to determining what you want is to consistently seek greater clarity and specificity. I might respond to your response with another question like, "What do you want from life?"

This question isn't at all specific, but it is more specific than the generic, "What do you want?"

For example, it eliminates the questions, "What do you want for lunch?", or "What do you want to do on vacation?", or "What do you want for your birthday?"

Well, it at least eliminates them in the specific e.g., "What do you want for lunch, today?" versus "What do you want for lunch, every day for the rest of your life?"


If you consider the above questions, you might have noticed something. 

Breathe in...

Breathe out...

Do you see it?

For most people1 the answers to specific questions come more readily than the answers to general ones. This is a clue. The path to what you want generally is littered with breadcrumbs that drop from what you regularly want specifically.

Note that the operative verb is want; it doesn't particularly matter what you do regularly2, just what you want regularly. Sometimes doing and wanting coincide; most times, they don't.

Knowing what you regularly want yet don't act upon is a great place to start when tracking down what you want generally. Knowing what you don't want yet regularly do is also a great starting place. Knowing both is a3 perfect starting place.

Let's start with both.

  1. Grab a sheet of paper or open a program into which you can enter two columns of text. 
  2. Label the first column, "What I Regularly Want, but Don't Get".
  3. Label the second column, "What I Regularly Get, but Don't Want."
  4. Set at timer or mark your clock and, without pausing to evaluate, spend 90 seconds writing into each column as many things as you can.

Don't filter. Don't second guess. Don't explain. Don't justify. Don't erase or cross out. Put on the list anything that comes to mind. For example, you might want more sleep, but never get it; you might want to sleep less. Whatever it is, capture it.




Times up!

How'd you do? Which list is longer? Do any of your entries stand out? Do you see any patterns?

Don't worry if none stands out or you see no patterns. It'll come.

Let's dig in and start processing the clues.

As specific and clear as your entries might be, if you want them to become great clues, you've got to become even more specific and clear.


Here's the exercise for next time. For each entry on your list, ask yourself questions that lead to greater specificity and clarity.

  • Why do I want that? 
  • What about it is appealing? 
  • Why don't I want that? 
  • What about it is unappealing? 
  • If I want that, then why don't I have it? 
  • If I don't want that, then why do I do it?

Each question will yield an answer that begs another question4. No matter how obvious the next answer may seem, ask the next question. If you find yourself cycling, then ask another question about the same answer.

For example, if you answer "Why do I want more sleep?" with "Because I'm tired all the time!", you might ask, "Why am I tired all the time?" and find yourself answering, "Because I need more sleep."

To break that cycle you could ask questions like: "What about being tired all the time don't I want?" or "Would having more sleep really make me less tired?" or "Am I really tired all the time?"

The answers to any of the above questions may seem obvious (at first), but you'd be surprised at how answers can vary, e.g, "I don't like being tired because I miss all the good TV shows.", or, "You know, it's not the lack of sleep that leaves me feeling tired; it's my job.", or, "Come to think of it, I'm not tired all the time; I really only get tired when answering questions like this."

Take your time and dig into the specifics. As you do, patterns will emerge. If you pay attention, you might even see them. The relentless pursuit of specificity and clarity across a variety of specific wants and don't-wants will lead to something that is perhaps unexpected: an understanding of what you want and don't want generally.

Give it a shot and let me know how it works. When you're ready, we'll talk about addressing the next step in getting what you want: reconciling conflicting wants.

Happy Monday,

1That would be most people. For some, the answers to questions like "Shall we get married or move in together?" come much more readily than "For lunch, shall we have Sushi or Salad?"
2Strictly speaking, what you do regularly is what you want, but that's another discussion best saved for later.
3There needn't be only one perfect place from which to start.
4If you pay attention, you'll start to notice that almost all answers beg another question or many questions.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

No You Di'ent.

I can tell you that all the hype about the piano being a "great" musical instrument is just that, hype. When it comes to great musical instruments, the piano is way overrated.

How do I know? Well from first hand experience, of course. I tried piano myself. Twice even. And I'm here to tell you firsthand that piano doesn't work.

This is not just hearsay from some thirdhand gossip. This is eyewitness testimony from someone who was there.

Not only did I try piano (did I mention that I did so twice), but I also prepared extensively. I read no fewer than ten texts on the piano, its design and construction, and its history. I read five biographies about so-called "great" pianists. I poured through contemporary magazines on pianos, keyboards and players. I readied myself in every way imaginable.

Yet, when put to the test, the piano failed to produce anything that I would call "great" music.

I tried piano; piano DOES NOT work.

If you're thinking, "Hmm... that was my experience with piano too", then, um, never mind.

If you're not thinking that then here's something to ponder. As silly as the above may sound, I'll bet you've done something akin to it in another domain.  Your phrasing may have been a bit different. Your articulated attributions may have varied. Nonetheless, you've made a similar case.

It might have been manual transmissions that don't work. It might have been sushi that didn't work. Certainly there have been diets or exercise regimes or self-improvement programs or significant partners that "didn't work." You tried them; they didn't work.

Whatever it is you "tried" that didn't work, there's a pretty good chance that it didn't work just like piano didn't work.

Why's that matter?

It doesn't in-and-of-itself. However, let's say that you've spent years looking for something that does work. It's quite likely that you've already "tried" several losers that were in fact winners. You just never really tried them. If that's the case, then you might want to revisit your having tried in light of the above having tried piano.

Happy Thursday,

Monday, May 20, 2013

21 Days

They say that it takes twenty-one dates to establish a habit. defines habit as:
An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
Habits are funny creatures. They're easy to create and often challenging to uncreate. Some habits grow strong that they're easily confused with their cousin, addiction. Still, they're only just habits.

Although they can appear to be the same, habits vary significantly from addictions. Addiction is one of many possible responses to having developed a habit. defines addition as:
The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
 They're related but different.

The most important thing to know about habit and addiction is that neither is inherently bad or good. Most of the time, they're simply the outgrowths of repeated activity and the repeated application of specific beliefs about that activity. That is, the acquired ones are. There are others that are not developed or acquired. They're inherent to physical design, e.g., the habit of breathing are or drinking water or eating food.

This is not to say that acquired habits feel any less potent than inherent ones. It's just good to know the difference. Any habit (inherent or acquired) can become quite powerful.

Over the last twenty days, Iris has been building a new habit. The habit is to get up every morning, walk the half mile from our house down to the road and then walk the half mile back up to the house. There's a vertical difference of several hundred feet, so the walk can be a bit challenging on the way back.

The first few days of habit development, unprompted, Iris got up, got dressed and walked.

Days four and five required prompting that was met with no resistance. (In my experience of habit building, this is a common phenomenon. One can become a bit lax after a few days of success.)

Day six: no prompting.

Day seven: no prompting and we celebrated. Hurray, seven days along our way to twenty-one.

Day 8
On day eight another curious and common phenomenon occurred. Iris was a bit behind schedule. She had ample time to walk were she to focus and get it done. When I asked her whether or not she was going to walk, Iris said, "I was thinking that I'd walk after I get home. It doesn't really make any difference whether I do it before I go or after I get back."

As an accomplished creator of habits, I thought aloud, "What? Are you kidding me? It absolutely matters."

Iris looked at me for moment, and then apparently decided that she'd prefer a walk to hearing my explanation. So I'll explain to you. I'd say the most frequent cause of midterm habit abortion is the belief that certain factors such as when or how or where don't really matter. Sure, if you'd already entrenched the habit, you'd be able to discern the required from the not-required. However, on the way there, you simply don't know.

Further, the first rule in great habit development is: Don't delay! Do it right away!

The easiest way to undermine a habit is to decide to do it later. The easiest way to decide to do it later is to entertain the possibility of not doing it now. I've found the best solution is this. The moment I start wondering whether or not to do it now, I just do it now.

Day 20
Iris just walked in the door after her twentieth day of habit formation. She seems well on her way to having established a habit. I'm not sure whether it takes twenty-one, fourteen or forty days to do so, but I am sure that "daily" matters.

An oft-overlooked side-effect of habit development is free time. You wouldn't believe how much time is spent in self-debate over whether or not to do something, self-reprimand for not having done so, or the seemingly infinite loop of starting over and again.

Once entrenched, an acquired habit gains the strength of an innate one. You'd sooner miss a meal than miss the chance to exercise or practice or work math problems.

It's quite amazing.

What are your habits? What would you have them be?

Happy Monday,

Saturday, May 18, 2013

All the Reasons You Don't

Most of us sleep away our lives.

Some do so literally, some figuratively.

We dabble. We dally. We perseverate. We second guess. We question. We reason.

We never resolve.

Some do these actively with vigor, thus providing the sensation of forward motion.

Yet in moments of waking they realize that the sensation was nothing more than a blissful dream or nightmare.

Perhaps sleep is the wrong verb. Perhaps a better verb word would be masturbate? Hmm...

Let's try that out.

Most of us masturbate away our lives.

Some do so literally, some figuratively.

We seek stimulation. We exhaust it. We seek new stimulation. We exhaust it.

Hmm... that's not quite it either.

Maybe it's a combination of both verbs?

Most of us masturbate and sleep away our lives.

Some do so literally, some figuratively.

We seek stimulation. We find it. We stimulate. We sleep.

We repeat the pattern, over and again.

For some, it's dinner, television and bed.

For others it's a night out seeking the perfect momentary partner, and then...

Stimulation comes in bottles; it comes in pills.

It comes in cups; it comes in mugs.

Stimulation performs on stages; it plays on screens.

Every once in a while, we find the perfect stimulant, a combination that leads to an experience we want to repeat.

It might be the perfect mix of coffee, cream and sugar.

It might an amazing performance in a hall that is acoustically perfect.

It might a keen awareness resulting from chemically enhanced senses.

The experience might be so wonderful that you give up everything trying to recreate it.


I guess it's so you can sleep.

Seek, stimulate, sleep.

Seek, stimulate, sleep.

If you take me too literally, you're probably thinking, "What the heck is he talking about now?"

I know I'd be thinking that.

Nonetheless, I think there something in what I'm saying that makes sense.

I believe that we all start as creators and designers, builders and implementors, performers and players. Yet something happens along the way. We abandon these primary reasons for being and become something else: consumers.

We become buyers and collectors. Watchers and critics. Users and abusers. We lose all those things that form our likeness to god.

We could find them. It'd be easy... if only we knew they were missing.

Happy Saturday,

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mindless thinking

My mind is exploding with a myriad of thoughts and ideas, and to be honest, that’s what it does best.  I'm on a mini-vacation, with a clear plan to do nothing.  So, with nothing on my agenda, I’m free to let the explosion happen, and just see all that shows up in my head.  It's wonderful! Thoughts connect to each other and to previously thought thoughts, and segue to seemingly unconnected ideas.  It's like watching a mesmerizing display of floating color and lights.  Typically, I shut it down, reminding myself that I have no time for this, feeling burdened by the compulsion to do something about all my thoughts. 

Rushing to identify the doing part of my thoughts isn’t always useful.  For one thing, the thing to be done isn’t always clear, or the decision to do that thing may not be actually based on the current series of thoughts, but on a previous decision, when another similar set of thoughts had occurred sometime in the past.  Sometimes I’m just acting on a part of another ‘to do’ list, possibly irrelevant to the yet uncompleted thoughts of today.  I haven’t allowed all the thoughts to tumble out, connect themselves to other thoughts in whatever haram-scaram, helter-skelter spider's web that evolves, how do I even know if I want to do anything about them, much less what the anything would be?
So for right now, I'm going to think my thoughts.  I may even write them down.  I don't know if I'll do anything about them yet.  I'm just committing to allowing them, to seeing and experiencing them for a while. 
What would you think about if you allowed yourself to just think?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No Time for Good Ideas

After the meeting I ask my boss, "So, didn't you guys think I had a good idea? No one picked up on it or even commented on it."

Dave replies, "Sure, your idea was good. It's just that being good isn't enough for an idea to merit discussion."

"It's not?"

"Nope. Everyone around here has lots of good ideas, so many in fact that were we to discuss all of them we'd never get through them."

"Uh, huh."

"More importantly, time that we spend on good ideas is time that we don't spend on great ideas."

"OK, I see your point, but..."

"Wait, there's more. Even great ideas don't necessarily merit discussion."

"They don't? But what if they're really great?"

"It wouldn't necessarily matter."

"What would matter?"

"That the idea was important."

"Well, who gets to decide if an idea is important or not?"

"The project."

"The project?"

"Yeah, the project. An idea's importance is determined by its degree of relevance to the project. If an idea helps us achieve what we want faster, better or cheaper, then it's relevant. The more it does that, the more important the idea is. The more important the idea is, the more discussion it merits."

My musician-cum-computer-scientist brain is still in transition. Despite its apparent aptitude for software and computer science, it strongly favors ontological flow over epistemological structure. No matter how often I pick up the pencil with my right hand, it seems to always magically end up in my left. Everything Dave says makes sense, yet something inside me resists it.

I'm used to discussions that run through the evening into morning touching on anything and everything. The thought that a good or great idea might not merit even a word of discussion is simultaneously disconcerting and appealing.

I say to Dave, "So, what really matters is how much an idea helps us to get stuff done."

"Yup. Being great won't even get an idea onto the discussion list."

That discussion occurred back in 1983. It's one that I am frequently reminded of as I participate in meetings or listen to folks who've determined they want to finally get down to doing something.

Over the past thirty years, I've come to realize that adherence to Dave's approach might be one of the most significant differences between people who fulfill their intentions and those who don't.

Even great ideas may not merit a word of discussion.

Happy Wednesday,