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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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Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel

travel-philosophy
Image by Kurlvink

We all travel with expectations that may or may not be met when our imagination of a place meets the reality of actually being there. Traveling in Pakistan one week and Brunei the next, for example, I found my expectations upended.

Before going to both places, I expected that Karachi (Pakistan) would be a fairly rough place. The plan was to lie low for a couple of days, visit the market and mosque, maybe talk with a few people – nothing major. I do get tired fairly often while traveling, especially when I’m going between continents and to hot climates my body isn’t used to.

I figured I would “tough it out” in Pakistan and be rewarded with a few days in Brunei, a sleepy, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei was to be my last real stop on this trip before heading back to the States via Singapore and Tokyo.

If you expect to learn that my imagination did not match up to reality, you’re right: I greatly enjoyed my time in Karachi and found it quite relaxing (in an odd way), and I struggled with my weekend stay in Brunei.

Here’s why:

Getting to Pakistan was quite an adventure, mostly because I was unable to obtain a visa in advance, and they do not (usually) offer any visas upon arrival. That one was a real drama for a while, but after it was resolved, everything was smooth sailing. I could afford to eat whatever I wanted there, public transport was easy and cheap, I had good wi-fi access, and importantly, I felt completely safe for the whole visit.

After I went to Pakistan, I took off for Brunei, a small Islamic sultanate located on Borneo in Southeast Asia. Here’s a map, since not everyone knows where that is:

Map of Brunei in Borneo (Southeast Asia)

Part of the reason that Westerners don’t know much about Brunei is because it’s a small country. Another part of the reason is because, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot to do there for the average visitor.

During my weekend there, I naturally went walking, and naturally spent a morning at the local coffee shop. Picking up the local newspaper, this was the main story:

Imams Urge Decent Behavior: “Social ills and negative elements like intoxicating drinks, wearing indecent clothing, smoking and so on which are against the religion and culture [and] can be shielded by a knowledge of the religion,” imams said Friday.

A few other short headlines:

  • Prize Presentation for 10-Pin Bowling Competition
  • Police Recruits to Uphold Discipline
  • Racers All Set for Brunei Go-Kart Challenge
  • Fun Quizzes and Poetry Recitals to Be Held at Convention Center

(I thought some of those could probably come straight from The Onion… but this was actually a real newspaper. It gives you an accurate reflection of how sleepy Brunei is.)

The coffee shop featured a free magazine rack, but when I looked more closely, I discovered a McCall’s magazine from October 1999. Seriously, 1999 – nine years ago. I don’t always expect the latest Economist, but nine years is a long time in the life of a magazine.

Because of the country's vast oil wealth, Brunei is also pretty expensive. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford much of anything, including food anywhere other than the coffee shop. By contrast, in Pakistan I could pay for breakfast – or any meal I wanted – in the nice hotel.

Before we go any further, I should provide the Obligatory Disclaimer: I’m not saying Brunei’s a bad place; I’m just saying that other than the entertaining newspapers, it didn’t really have anything that was appealing to me. If you live there or have visited and have a different impression, that’s great.

Your Mileage May Vary

None of my friends travel the way I do – and almost none of them travel the same way as anyone else. We all have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different goals for our trips.

I’m pretty open-minded about all of this. There’s just one thing I don’t like to hear:

“You’re doing it wrong.”

That one bothers me. My view is that as long as your actions don’t hurt someone else (the basic “do no harm” principle), then it is up to you to figure out what you enjoy and appreciate about travel.

If someone tells you, “You’re doing it wrong,” you don’t have to listen to them. Maybe they’re doing it wrong, or more likely, they have not yet learned that people can do things differently without being wrong.

For example:

The people at Indie Travel Podcast are all about, well, independent travel. Their audience is mostly students (U.S., Canada, and U.K. primarily) and younger, adventure travel types.

I also read First Class Flyer every month to learn about strategies for upgrades and premium flights. Matt, the publisher, has a completely different audience than your average casual traveler.

There are people on FlyerTalk who fly all over the world and never leave the airport – they just enjoy flying. I like flying too, but not that much – I do like to get out and about for a while before getting on another plane.

These are just a few ends of the spectrum -- if you think about it, you can probably think of lots of other ways to travel.

What Is Culture?

For a while, I felt guilty if I went to a new place and didn’t “experience local culture” according to the way some people think you should.

I remember when I went to Tunisia in the late spring. Thanks to a friend’s help, I was able to spend a whole weekend with a host family. One of the highlights, believe it or not, was going to the grocery store on Sunday morning with them.

Some people might feel it is more important to visit the historical sites of Tunisia (there are many) rather than hang out at the grocery store, and they usually use the culture word to make their case. I enjoyed seeing a few of the sites, but I enjoyed my time with my host family even more.

To people who wonder about this, I ask, "What do you think people who live in Tunisia do all the time?" Well, among other things, they go to the grocery store. They watch TV. They live their lives.

Creating a philosophy of travel that works for you goes back to the two questions I wrote about a while back –

  • What do you really want?
  • What can you give?

Your individual answers to these questions can affect what you enjoy about travel, and if you spend some time on it, you can develop your own travel philosophy that is unique to you.

A Little of Everything

As for me, I kind of like to do it all. I’ve flown in Virgin Atlantic’s amazing Upper Class cabin and stayed in countless $10-a-night hostels. Using my Starwood points, sometimes I’ve been fortunate to stay in great hotels that otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a night… and then I check out after a day or two to move across town to a cheap guesthouse. I know most people would probably stay more at one end or another, but for me, I’m comfortable with both.

When I went down to El Salvador on the first part of my trip this week, I enjoyed the ironic fact that the taxi from the airport ($25) cost more than my room at the Hotel Happy House ($23). And by the way, there wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Hotel Happy House, but it had a nice vibe. If you head that direction, it’s not a bad place to stay for a couple of days.

Oh, and earlier this week, I slept on the floor of the Dallas airport. At least I tried to sleep for a few hours in between landing close to midnight and boarding the next flight at 5:30 a.m. It was pretty much as you’d expect – not a great experience, but it’s over now. No big deal.

The point is, I like mixing it up. That’s my style.

I stay in most places longer than the average jet-setter, but shorter than the average backpacker. Over the past few months, I’ve made some adjustments in my preferred travel style to allow me to visit more countries, especially the difficult ones like Iraq, Mongolia, and Pakistan.

I think of this as more of a lifestyle design issue – the goal of visiting every country is really important to me, so I've chosen to focus on it and occasionally push myself harder than I’d otherwise prefer.

Now I’m off to the Middle East and Persian Gulf again. I’ll be in Cairo most of next week, and I just realized that Ramadan is currently being observed. I’ve been in the region several times, but never during Ramadan... so I'm excited to experience it firsthand.

But anyway, that’s me…

The point is, I am resistant to people who try to put an agenda on the way other people live their lives, including their own preferences or styles of travel.

And really, life is short, right? Rather than do it someone else’s way, isn’t it better to figure out what matters to you and then pursue that goal?

What do you think -- and how do you like to travel?

###

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Swimming from Regrets


Image by NTMatt

The other day I was walking around the neighborhood and suddenly realized I had a big regret: for nearly two years, I had the chance to learn how to swim, and I kept putting it off. Now, my chance was gone, and I wished I could get it back.

Technically, I know how to swim. If you threw me in the water, I wouldn’t drown. I just mean that I’m a terrible lap swimmer. To recover from running injuries, I’ve sometimes added a weekly swim to my workout routine, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I’ve always known that a big part of my lack of enthusiasm comes from lack of knowledge, but I’ve never done anything about it.

Every academic quarter for the past two years, I thought about signing up for an intermediate swimming class, where I’d finally learn to breath better and correct a lot of my improvised (read: flawed) technique. But every quarter, something always came up.

A couple of times there was a schedule conflict. Once, the class filled up too quickly. Sometimes I didn’t realize when the deadline was, and by the time I thought of it again, it was too late. All good reasons (well, except for forgetting about it), but I believe that we make time for what’s important to us.

If it was important to me to become a better swimmer, I could have found a way to take the class.

But now, it’s too late. I’ve finished my graduate program and no longer have access to the nice university classes and the awesome student athletic center. I do pushups at home and run outside at least four times a week, so I’m keeping fit… but there’s no other Olympic-sized pool and amazing gym nearby.

It’s kind of sad. One of my most important values is to live life with no regrets, and while walking around my neighborhood the other day, I realized I had let one slip past me. I had let myself down; I saw it clearly this week, but I missed it when it counted.

***

I’m making a 5-minute internet movie that I’ll share with you when it’s done, but for now, the theme has to do with Time and Money. Another thing I believe is that in most cases, with most regrets we have, there is still enough time to do something about it.

We can’t change the past, and we might not be able to do exactly what we should have done a long time ago – I probably can’t take the University of Washington class, since I’m not a student anymore – but there’s often an alternative.

Sitting down on the curb outside my apartment, I composed this list of alternatives for my own situation:

  • There are two community pools within three miles of my apartment. They might not be awesome, but since I’m basically learning how to really swim for the first time, it shouldn’t matter that much.

  • There are YMCA classes I can take. Again, they’re probably not the same style as the university classes – but I’m a low-intermediate swimmer, not the next Michael Phelps.

  • Tim Ferris recently wrote about the Total Immersion method. His swimming story sounds identical to mine – he tried over and over on his own, but never got into it. This DVD helped him, so maybe I’ll check it out.

  • In his running/writing memoir, Haruki Murakami mentioned that he hired a private swim coach to help him improve the skill. A “private swim coach” sounds expensive at first glance, but I just need a couple of 30-minute lessons. That shouldn’t be too much, and if I’ve been putting this off for two years, it’s probably a good investment.

I’m not 100% sure which of these alternatives I’ll go with… but I will do something about my regret. I know that if I don’t at least try, I’ll always feel another twinge of regret whenever I hear someone talk about swimming.

If there’s anything I don’t want, it’s a life of regrets. That’s why I started writing on this site, that’s why I travel, that’s why I do anything I can to avoid working a real job, and on and on. It’s not to say that anyone who makes different choices will regret them. But for me, I would not be content if I didn’t do these things.

Living life to the fullest while helping others is what it’s all about.

Some might view my failure to take swimming lessons as a small regret compared to what they consider to be more major life failures. In a way, it’s true – if my biggest regret right now is not learning to swim, I suppose I'm doing OK.

But on the other hand, small is not the same thing as inconsequential. When it comes to regrets, that old saying about how if you don’t deal with the small things, you’ll end up making bigger mistakes was in my mind as I thought about this. I’m not sure if it's completely true or not, but I don’t want to risk it.

Life is too short to miss out on learning and the living. We’ve got art to create, businesses to grow, worlds to conquer. And as for me, I’ve got some swimming lessons to go to.

My question for you is:

Do you want to live with no regrets? How’s that going?

###

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Video Update: Whole-Wheat Bread and 8 Olympic Gold Medals

Friends and readers, in celebration of the Phelpsian (this is a newly created adjective; Google returns 11,000+ results for it already) achievements that you and I are on track for, I thought it would be important to show how winning eight Olympic Gold medals in nine days is still not enough to please everyone.

Check it out in the three-minute video below.

(Newsletter and RSS readers, I have no clue how this will display in your browser. If you don’t see anything, just click through to the site.)

If you can’t see it for some reason, try using this direct link from Google Video.

***

The last time I posted a video update, I got good reviews from everyone who was able to view it, but naturally some readers with slow connections were not able to do so. There’s really no easy way to fix that.

The reason I make videos is because it’s a different medium than writing, and different people like to consume different forms of media. Think about podcasts, books, magazines, blogs, etc. If you can use one more than one form of media in your army-building, so much the better.

With the help of Ken the professional videographer, I’ve recorded one more update like this that should go up in a couple weeks. After that, we’ll make more based on how you all like them.

Oh, and speaking of Michael Phelps, have you all heard the news about how he has been returned to his tank at Sea World?

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The Care and Feeding of World-Changers

pile of books for world-changers
Image by Paul Watson
I spent the evening at Barnes & Noble last night, and did a lot of reading in the café area. I spent most of the time reading the first part of Haruki Murakami’s new book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s part running log, part self-help guide, and part writing memoir. I love it.

I read a few other things too – the BBC Focus on Africa magazine, a travel guide for Sri Lanka, and a quick look at a memoir of someone who spent two years at Harvard Business School.

I tend to spend a lot of time reading like that, although recently I’ve cut back. That’s not a good sign – I believe reading is one of the most important things we can do every day – so I’m working on fixing it.

The regular intake of valuable resources, especially books, is crucial to the development of any committed world-changer.

In this post I’ll share more about why reading is so important, and let you know about a few other materials I’ve been checking out recently.

First, let’s say you’ve got your two answers to the most important questions in the universe, you’re building a small army, and preparing to launch a plan of attack (or scale up your current plan). How do you keep the momentum going?

Without regular doses of the right resources, your world-changing will be limited, and that momentum will shift downwards. Since we live in an age where access to information has been democratized (at least for everyone able to read this essay), there’s no real excuse for not taking the time out to learn.

Good resources can inform, inspire, or entertain. These goals are not mutually exclusive; some resources can accomplish more than one at the same time.

Fiction

I try to read at least one work of literary fiction a month. I recently read Never Let Me Go and Baudolino, both of which I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Earlier this year I read The Rector of Justin and re-read A Wild Sheep Chase, another Murakami book. I picked up Harbor for the last trip, but it didn’t arrive on time, so I’ll have it for the next one. For less intellectual entertainment resources, I check out the Fail Blog, GraphJam, and a few online comics.

Non-Fiction

Some of my all-time favorites are linked on my Inspiration page. In addition to those, recently I’ve discovered The Power of Full Engagement and have been slowly reading that.

Earlier this year I also read The 7 Habits for the first time ever. For some reason I missed it in its original shining hour, but reading it felt very familiar. I realized that I lot of the principles and examples in the book have been adapted (and sometimes stolen without credit) by many other writers and teachers in the personal development field.

I have to admit that I thought a bit less of the people I’ve learned from who used Stephen Covey’s stories without any attribution. Maybe I should read The 8th Habit next and see what else has been stolen.

(Note to Prospective Gurus: if you want to become a self-help teacher, by all means, use the best stuff that’s out there. But you should also create your own material, and credit what you do end up borrowing or adapting.)

Alternative Learning Styles

I’m an old-school fan of traditional books, and probably always will be. For me, there's something about holding the paper and ink in my hands that isn't easily replicable with other mediums. But it’s true that not everyone has the same learning style, and it’s always good to mix it up a bit. When I’m running I usually listen to a 20-minute language learning podcast before switching over to high-energy music for the rest of the run. I’m not an inherently good language learner and don’t always enjoy the process, but once I start the podcast I can usually stick with it until the end.

In addition to language learning, the iTunes directory has an increasingly large selection of free educational resources. There are also video podcasts, which don’t work well while running (I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty; trust me) but can be fun to check out on the bus or airplane.

For paid products, the Teaching Company has some fun courses which I’m sure you can learn a lot from. If I don’t sound too certain, it’s because this is definitely not my learning style. I have a hard time listening to lectures.

(One tip: these DVD and CD products are pretty expensive. You can get a better deal by shopping on eBay for used copies.)

Eliminating Distractions

While I advocate taking in many diverse sources of information, I also agree that you should eliminate as many unimportant distractions as possible. For me, the biggest distraction is internet surfing. I have an incredible ability to spend hours in front of the computer doing nothing of value. An hour will pass and I don’t even remember what web sites I’ve been reading. Yikes—that’s not good.

To end, or at least cut back on this bad habit, I’ve had to set rules for myself. The current ones are:

  • Gmail three times a day (no more)

  • News-reading twice a day (no more)

  • Try to initiate at least one minor-to-moderate project a day (instead of continually responding to other things)

  • Complete at least one task towards each major project

  • Spend time writing first thing in the morning

  • Never feel bad about stopping work to exercise
Speaking of the Murakami book, one passage I read last night was especially relevant.

I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing… I felt that the indispensible relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn’t this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority? My opinion hasn’t changed over the years.

Except for being a novelist, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about what I want to do. But I know I have a lot to learn, so that’s why I keep reading.

What Resources Do You Rely On?

I included some of what I’m reading these days in case you’re looking for referrals, but it’s important to read according to your own preferences.

What’s on your bookshelf – or your iPod, your Kindle, or whatever – these days?

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