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Friends and Enemies

Rerouted-StreamI’m sitting in a bar in Washington, D.C., listening to another writer talk about the untimely demise of her blog. The blog in question started at almost the same time as The Art of Nonconformity. When I first read her writing last year, I knew she was going places. The posts were crisp, funny, and helpful at the same time.

In fact, when I read almost any of her writing, I thought it was better than most of mine. Then, after a few months of steady content, one day she stopped writing.

Naturally, I wondered, “Why? What happened?”

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How Much Money Do You Really Need?

Here’s a good question: how much money is enough? What do we need to have in order to meet our needs and help us be happy? As I completed my Annual Review recently, I finalized a choice I had been pondering for a while. The choice was whether I should continue scrambling to earn a good living as an entrepreneur while writing on the side, or to go “all in” with the project I believed in more – writing full-time.

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Christmas Obligations

I have a fairly conventional Christmas week scheduled out over the next four days. All signs point for it to be filled with the usual blend of good times (worth remembering) and frustrating times (worth forgetting) that most holidays seem to have. It’s good to see people you love; it’s not good to feel trapped…

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What to Do When It’s Not Working Out

complacency-not-working-out
Image by SladeGibbs

From countless encounters with failure, I can tell you that not everything works out the way you hope it will. If you keep trying, you’ll get where you want to go in the end, but there will undoubtedly be many stops along the way where you encounter a dead-end.

First, how do you know when it’s not working out?

Here are a few signs:

  • You approach the project with neither excitement nor dread. You just don’t care.

  • If it's a group project, discussions and planning become circular. People say the same things they said last time, and the time before that. There is plenty of conflict, but little resolution.

  • You feed off crisis. The crisis drowns out everything else. When you have no crisis, you invent one or just wait for another to arrive.

  • Most importantly, NOTHING EVER CHANGES. This kind of thing doesn’t usually get better on its own.

That’s pretty much how you know it’s not working out. So what do you do? The good news is that your options are limited. Specifically, you have only three:

1) Do Nothing
2) Quit
3) Change Something Major

Option #1: Do Nothing

Doing nothing is the most common response when confronting apathy. You suck it up and live with it. You keep going through the motions, dutifully showing up without actually doing much. You attend the meetings, wondering more about what kind of cookies will be waiting on the table than what will be on the agenda.

The agenda? Speaking of that, there may be a written one somewhere, but there is no driving force. Remember, it doesn’t usually get better on its own.

Effectively, you stop all pretense of caring what happens. When I worked in Africa, we used to call this “checking out.” Someone would be coming to the end of a long time in a difficult job, for example, and they had lost their motivation. They had “checked out.”

“Can we ask Steve to do this?”

“He’s checked out.”

“Oh.”

Time to move on to the next guy, because when someone checks out, it’s hard to get them back. If you're the one who has checked out, see the next two options.

Option #2: Quit

When you quit, you walk away as quickly as possible, consequences be damned. You’re in the wrong job, on the wrong team, working on the wrong project, pursuing the wrong goal. Or maybe you’re what’s wrong – but either way, you can quit.

If you start to feel guilty about it, or if someone questions you, you can give the age-old response: “Lots of other people are doing this too.” This response seemingly justifies any behavior, from smoking to discrimination or whatever.

But sometimes, option #2 may be your only choice, if for no other reason than to retain your sanity. When it comes down to that, I think hanging on to sanity is worth whatever guilt you feel for quitting. And if you were the problem to begin with, well, maybe things will be better for everyone else after you leave. You never know.

Option #3: Change Something Big

If you can’t stand the status quo and don’t want to give up, this leaves only one option: something must change. It has to be something significant; even outsiders should be able to look and say, hey, this is different.

Change is the lifeblood of innovation and the salvation of complacency, but beware: no one really likes change, and that’s why it can hard to introduce something that is significantly different after apathy has set in.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however.

What can you change? Ideas include:

  • The reason why you do this thing to begin with

  • The way in which the goal is measured

  • The group leader (if this is an independent project, see Option #2)

  • The format of the meetings

  • The responsibilities of everyone who is involved
Apathy is easy to diagnose but hard to treat, so there is no guarantee that Option #3 will work. For guarantees, do something easier.

###

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Unconventional Guides:

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The First Day of Your Life

legacy-sunrise
Image of East Beach, Norfolk by shoebappa

Here’s something to consider:

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe it’s like Time Is Money – something we nod our heads to before we get back to all the stuff we have to do.

Hearing that today is a new, unique day at the beginning of a new week naturally implies both good news and bad news. In the spirit of realistic optimism, we’ll take the bad news first.

Bad News: You’ll never get today back. Once it’s gone, that’s it. On to tomorrow.

Good News: Right now, the day (and the whole week) is ahead of you. The choice is up to you: spend your time doing things that are unimportant or uninteresting to you, or spend it on things that move you closer to who and where you want to be.

It’s not much more complicated than that, although the actual implementation can sidetrack the best visionary or GTD guru. What can be done about this?

Today, the Beginning of Your New Life

On one hand, we have obligations and responsibilities. Not all of these bad – we have obligations to our loved ones, for example, that we would not want to break. The problem is that we tend to look at all obligations as non-negotiable requirements, when in fact many of them are unnecessary. We take them on because we like to be busy, we like to be needed, or because we’re not actually certain what we should be doing every day.

Instead of being completely mandatory, I’ve found that most plans can be canceled. Most obligations can be deferred without the world coming to an end. You really don’t have to do what other people expect you to all the time.

Some people think these kinds of metaphors are silly. I say, use whatever works for you. If motivation comes your way, take it. Don’t ask questions. There are enough skeptics out there already.

What if you know you’re on the wrong track?

I have one suggestion: change course as quickly as you can. Don’t wait. Someone said in the comments last week that complacency is like the “slow dying of the soul.” I couldn’t put it better myself. If the job is dead-end, if the college track isn’t working out, if you don’t like where you’re living, change it as quickly as possible.

Assuming you are on the right course, then the danger is more that you’ll be distracted by all the obligations and unrelated tasks that crop up along the way.

To combat this kind of resistance, answer these questions:

  • Is there one thing you can do today that goes beyond your regular to-do list?
  • Is there one thing you can do this week to work towards your 5-year goals?

  • Is there one way you can help someone that no one else is able to do?

If so, I suggest that’s how you spend your time this week. It rarely works out to 100% efficiency, but the two steps forward, one step back approach gets us to the finish line eventually. The power of a single action, or a single action for each question above, should not be underestimated.

And when you get there, you’ll have done more than fulfill obligations. You’ll have more than money, and more than a well-stamped time card. You’ll be able to say that today was the beginning, and this week was an exceptional seven days.

Are you ready?

###

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The Link between Security and Complacency

security and complacency?
Image by PhotoGraham

Here’s a theory: the more secure we are, the less productive we become. The less risk and uncertainty we have in our lives, the more likely we are to amble along, getting by just fine but never really doing anything worth talking about.

Think about the sophomore album from bands that finally got their big record deal after years of struggling along. The first album is awesome; the second, mediocre.

Think about the reputations of professors at the last university you attended. If they were untenured (but on a tenure track), chance are they were more productive than tenured professors who had already obtained permanent job security.

You can probably think of other examples – bureaucrats, for example, who have safe but boring jobs.

Yes, there are exceptions to all of these. Some bands put out great sophomore albums, and some tenured professors become more prolific in their academic security. These exceptions, however, stand out because they are so unusual.

To simplify: complete security equals at least partial complacency.

I write this because we are living in uncertain times, at least financially speaking. Unless you have been living under the proverbial bridge, you’re probably aware that the U.S. economy hasn’t been performing as expected lately.

Where are our 15% a year gains? How come mortgages keep falling? And why are stocks still going down even though oil prices are also declining?

Someone else will have to answer those questions in more technical terms than I. Last week, I heard someone on Twitter say, “My 401k has become a 201k.” Ha ha. Except we’re not laughing, because as of right now, a great deal of wealth has disappeared into thin air.

As for me, I haven’t logged in to my Vanguard account since March or April. It kind of sucks, but what can you do? If you sell your retirement fund now, you’ve locked in your 30% loss. Better to stick it out, I say, and focus on what you can control.

If you were 100% secure, according to the theory of security and complacency, you’d become nonchalant about your most important work.

Complacency means you aren’t hungry. You don’t get out of bed in the morning excited about the day ahead. You don’t go the extra mile, and you settle for “good enough,” because you correctly suspect that most people won’t notice the difference.

This is sad, but common. I’ve let it happen to me many times.

I’m not sure why some people are able to succeed without any uncertainty. All I know is, I am not one of those people. I’m best as an untenured underdog. I’m best when the risk of failure is high and success is far from certain.

Give Me Neither Poverty Nor Riches

Because security can be such a demotivator, the opposite is true as well: a healthy amount of insecurity helps us Get Stuff Done. For example, I told you when I started writing here that I would post three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

You know what? I’m scared of missing a day, because I know if it happens, it will become a lot easier to miss another day sometime. I’ll discover that the world doesn’t end and no one is really that mad or anything. But then, I’ll get complacent. And that, I am absolutely certain, is NOT a good thing for me at all.

Steven Pressfield writes about this in The War of Art, the best little book (it really is little) I’ve ever read about the need for scheduling your creative work. Thus, I keep the schedule. I haven’t missed a day yet, even though there are a couple of times I’ve finished something at 11:45 p.m.

A Short Unconventional Guide Update

I’ll post up the promised analysis of the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself launch on Wednesday, but in short, it’s gone very well. A lot more people than I expected have purchased the guide, and in the beta-test for the new affiliate program (invitation-only for now), several affiliates are also having good results around the internet.

I talked to another blogger on the phone a couple of days before the launch, and I said that I hoped it sold well “but not too well.” He thought that was odd and had never heard someone say something like that before.

I realized he was right: it is odd. It’s just what works for me, and I don’t necessarily recommend you follow this model.

All I can say is that I want to keep the focus on the main group of readers, not just the small subset who choose to buy something from me. Anyway, I’ll give you all the details on Wednesday.

For now, bring on the uncertainty! The work will be better because of it.

Stay eager. Stay tough. Get up and fight. Nothing is guaranteed.

What else is there?

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How to Fight Authority (and Win)

resist-authority-example
Image from Copenhagen, Denmark by ilmungo
“I fight authority; authority always wins.” –John Mellencamp

Citizens, consumers, and rebels of all kinds have been fighting authority for as long as history has been recorded. Sometimes they lose, as John Mellencamp sang in a great rock song, but other times, the underdog manages to unseat the strong and mighty.

I should say from the beginning that I don’t necessarily think all authority is bad. I’m in favor of gentle government regulation, general law and order, and checks and balances that prevent abuse of power by anyone. For this, you need authority. Anarchy is not a useful system of governance anywhere.

But sometimes, authority is dangerous and outright harmful. In these cases, it should be resisted in full force. Other times, authority may not be that bad, but it is used to prevent you from doing something that would be good for you without being harmful to anyone else.

In many of these cases, it’s worth it to stand up to authority… but you need a strategy.

From authority wielded by college administrators to world dictators, here’s how you fight it.

First, count the cost.

Be convinced you’re in the right before taking action. Fighting authority can be a long and lonely road, so take the time to make sure you believe in your campaign enough to sacrifice for it. (Yes, there will usually be sacrifice, and we’ll come back to that in a minute.)

Second, count the rewards.

Because the cost can be great, you have to decide if it’s worth it to you to challenge deep-seated authority. What will happen if you win? How will your world – and hopefully more than just your own world – be different?

In the Civil Rights Movement, for example, the reward of equality was clearly worth fighting for, but it was only fully achieved for a future generation – the children and grandchildren of the movement’s participants. Regardless, the participants believed in their cause so much that they were willing to suffer for something that would not be fully realized right away.

Other challenges to authority may not have the same level of rewards as an entire social movement, but there will always be a relationship between cost and rewards. Since you can only fight so many battles at a time you might as well pick something important.

Then, decide on Direct vs. Indirect confrontation.

One decision you’ll have to make when fighting authority is whether to do it directly or indirectly. The indirect way will usually be easier. You may be able to get what you want by simply going around the authority and finding your own way.

Direct confrontation is another beast altogether. Fighting authority one-on-one can lead to bloodshed – or at least hours on hold with customer service – but sometimes, there’s no other way.

To help you make the decision, first answer these two questions:

#1: “Is there another way to do this?”

When you’re confronted with authority that tries to prevent you from achieving your goals, think about whether there is any other way you can do what you need to do.

For example, there is usually another way to graduate from college, another way to earn a living, another way to get the airline to waive the baggage fee, another way to get a visa to Pakistan, or almost anything else.

Again, count the cost and count the rewards. If the traditional path isn’t that difficult, save your authority-fighting for something more important.

#2: “Can I simply ignore the authority standing in my way?”

Direct confrontation can be dangerous, because authority does not like to be challenged. Sometimes you can simply ignore authority and go through the back door.

In most of the African countries I lived in from 2002-2006, the government was relatively weak. Most citizens paid no taxes and lived nearly all their life outside the realm of the law. Disputes were resolved personally or by small, informal authority figures such as tribal elders.

If the citizens in most of these countries were to directly confront the government, the government would put up a fierce fight to put them down. No expense would be spared, and the fight would be brutal since no one likes to give up their power. But if the citizens were to just live their lives without challenging authority, the dictators (often benevolent, sometimes not) who ran the country would look the other way when the people chose to ignore many of the laws.

(In this system, citizens receive few benefits from the state, such as law and order, legal protection, and recognized home ownership, so it’s not necessarily a good way to live – but that’s another story.)

Next Stop, Sacrifice

A fundamental principle of lifestyle design is that you can usually have anything you want if you’re willing to work for it, but you can’t have everything. Tradeoffs must be made, and if you’re fighting authority, you may lose time, status, sleep, money, or worse. The bigger the challenge, the higher the risk of great sacrifice. Consider yourself warned.

***

Successful Challenges to Authority

Let’s look at two examples of successful (but quite different) challenges to authority: the American Revolution, and the rise of online resistance to the mega-corporation.

Benjamin Franklin - the American Revolution
Image by wallyg
The Pursuit of Happiness
“I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.” –Thomas Jefferson


The American Revolution was remarkable in that it changed the norms of government for most of the Western world. Until America declared independence from the British Monarchy, most people took it for granted that a king would always be around to tell them what to do.

Just a few years later, the French Revolution followed the American one. In a short time, two of the world’s most powerful monarchies were dismantled or permanently weakened. Every world democracy, especially those who have overthrown monarchies or dictators to install a system of self-governance, owes a debt to the instigators and sustainers of the American Revolution.

Later, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) followed the path of these revolutions by exposing the great conflict in American society: that even though “all men were created equal,” until the CRM, some were more equal than others.

***

consumerist-fight-authorityShoppers Bite Back

Challenges to authority need not be governmental in nature. Consider the popular site The Consumerist. This is a great example of how the internet and adoption of social media has helped underdogs (consumers) fight authority (corporations).

For a long time, consumers who had somehow been cheated by corporations had few places to turn to for assistance. Sure, advocates like Ralph Nader helped us get seat belts and deal with major injustice, and perhaps the local news station’s investigative reporter could help once in a while, but for the most part, consumers were left to suffer the perceived injustice on their own.

Not so now. When a company like Best Buy screws someone over (judging from the site, it appears that Best Buy is a frequent target), the Consumerist posts up all the details. Thousands of people read it within minutes… and so does the company, because they are finally beginning to understand the destructive power of negative P.R.

In contrast to their preferred methods of communication, corporations have been forced to respond to many consumer complaints posted on the site. They do not always give in, but accountability has been introduced to the marketplace because of sites like the Consumerist.

Wrap-Up

I’ll have more to say about authority later, because this is a big topic… but for now, what do you think? What are some other examples of authority being successfully (or unsuccessfully) challenged?

###

P.S. A quick note to everyone in Canada who is reading today -- Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you guys are enjoying your holiday. There is no need to fight authority up there at the moment, unless someone tries to take your pumpkin pie.

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Time Is Money?

time is money?
Image by Planetina

I came back into Seattle last night after two weeks traveling around the world. In the morning I went up to my local Starbucks, on 45th Street in Wallingford. These two corporate guys were sitting there, wearing suits and carrying briefcases.

In Seattle, you don't see people dressed like that as much as you do in other cities. Over here, a shirt with a collar is considered “dressing up.”

As they were talking, one of them said, "Well, we should go. Time is money."

I looked up from my nearby table. Time Is Money, hmmmm.

Have you heard that one before? Hold on, we'll come back to it.

First, think about something. Amazon.com has at least 270 books on time management, but most of them fail to consider a basic question:

How can someone actually manage time?

When you manage people, you give them tasks to complete and check in on them once in a while.

When you manage a project, you make neat little spreadsheets, break out the Getting Things Done book, and chart your progress along the way.

But with time, none of those things apply.

You can't tell time what to do.

You can't give time a raise when it performs well and fire time when it doesn't meet your expectations.

Nope, you can't manage time. Too bad about all those books. Someone should have said something before the 270th author started writing.

Like it or not, time just marches on.

More Bad News

Unfortunately, there's more bad news about time. (Sorry.)

Like money, time is limited. But unlike money, once time is gone, there's no getting it back. You can't earn back what has been spent.

Time is closely related to the concepts of regret, inaction, indecision, and wistfulness.

All those things we left behind at some point.

Damn… don't you hate that?

***

Time can not be managed, and when it's gone, it's gone forever.

But if you're waiting for good news, you won't be disappointed.

Here it is:

THERE'S STILL ENOUGH TIME FOR WHAT YOU NEED.

There's still time to start that business, take that trip, start running those two miles that will help you run the marathon six months from now.

Or better yet, fill in the blank for yourself based on what you've always wanted to do (but have kept putting off for some reason).

Ready?

“There is STILL TIME for me to ____________________”

Got it?

If not, you may need more than a few seconds to think about it. It's worth your full consideration, even though time is money.

Whatever you choose, hold it close to you. Make it your focus, and don't let anyone take it from you. (Any number of people will try to.)

Back to Starbucks

The guys in the suits have left, but I'm still thinking about what they said: "Time is Money."

According to the time-is-money people, I've been wasting a lot of time this year.

  • I traveled to Iraq, Mongolia, Pakistan, and 20 other countries -- all without an agenda, or anything really important I had to do there
  • I spent an absurd number of hours standing in line or sitting on park benches waiting for train or bus stations to open up all over the world
  • I opted out of the next phase of graduate school and worked toward building a career as a full-time writer
Before that, I spent four years working for free in West Africa, so you can probably guess what I think about the link between time and money. No, there's nothing to that idea. So much for that, right?

But wait. Maybe I've got it partly wrong too.

Time is not the same thing as money, but it does have tremendous value. I don't want to be like the Ozymandeus that Percey Shelly wrote about:

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Nothing beside remains: round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Nope, don't want that.

Instead, I want to treat valuable time with the respect it deserves. I WANT TO DO SOMETHING REALLY GREAT with the valuable time I have.

How about you?

The Best Strawberry

Oh, and by the way -

Research shows that the average user clicks away from blog posts somewhere around the 300 word point. Since you've broken the curve and made it further than that, here's an old story that always makes me smile.


Image by myriorama

The story is about a Zen student who is running from a tiger in the forest.

The tiger is catching up to him, and the only way out is to jump over a cliff that leads to certain death on the rocks below.

With no real options, the Zen student jumps over the cliff, and just manages to grab on to a branch halfway down.

Beside the branch is a bush of wild strawberries, and the student reaches over with one free hand and takes one.

With the tiger above him and certain death on the rocks below him, he slowly eats the strawberry.

And as he does, he thinks, "This is the best strawberry I have ever tasted."

***

Thank you for your attention. Now, get back to work.

Because Time Is Money… right?

###

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Beware of Potential

I’ve known a lot of artists, writers, and musicians. Without fail, they all had some degree of talent and skill. There is no shortage of talent in the world. But I’ve noticed that something happens along the way with a lot of these talented people.

With a few notable exceptions, most of them give up on their goals at some point.

As a fellow creative, this really troubles me. Why do talented people stop working on what other people say they are good at?

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