We alone determine our own expectations. They often seem harmless, a simple and mostly inconsequential guess at the future, most often a short-term future. They are not harmless.
Expectations are incredibly important, more crucial than anyone talks about. They matter, not only in small personal ways but also in organization defining, championship winning, even life-and-death ways.
Imagine you are going to see a movie tonight. You have seen the teaser previews and it looks pretty good. You text your friend that “we should see ‘Last Train to Brooklyn’ tonight – I think it looks decent” and she agrees to go. During the day, you mention your plans to three friends and each one raves about the film. Your expectations rise from ‘maybe it will be decent’ before going to lunch to ‘this is going to be amazing‘ as the sun drops below the horizon.
Four hours later, you walk out of the theater disappointed. It wasn’t a bad film, but your expectations for near perfection were far greater than the director and the script writers managed to render at the cineplex. How much more satisfied would you have been if you had not mentioned the film to your friends during the day, and changed your expectations based on their comments?
Off-target expectations happen constantly in daily lives. Imagine the difference between a golfer who expects to shoot one of the best rounds of his life today, versus a golfer who wants to go out to be in the sunshine, to drink a couple of beers, and to hopefully break a 100. Imagine the casual basketball player who heads down to the gym expecting to be the star of the show tonight — even though he rarely is — versus the guy who plans to simply hustle, play good defense, and enjoy seeing his friends. Imagine the person who thinks traffic will be quick and light tonight, or imagine the person that goes to the restaurant expecting five-star service and the most incredible streak she has ever tasted. Sky high expectations nuke your perception of your experiences.
Expectations matter in bigger contexts too.
Imagine purchasing a stock based on a tip you received on the golf course last week. Your golf buddy tells you ABXX’s business is really starting to hit on all cylinders and it should double over the next three to five years. You do a bit of research, the CFRA report validates the story, you ultimately pull the trigger on 1,000 shares, and start watching the news about ABXX.
Just one month later, a talking head on CNBC espouses that ABXX should crush earnings next quarter and might pop 50%. A few weeks later, three Wall Street analysts increase their projections and buy recommendations. Your expectations skyrocket, but the subsequent earnings report comes in at the middle of the company’s previous guidance with no upside surprise. The stock price, which had run up into the print, loses ground overnight. In disgust, you sell your shares almost at the same price you bought them at. You then are annoyed three years later when you notice that ABXX shares have doubled since the day you had originally bought them.
Imagine you are the CEO of a thriving software company. If you and your young finance planners set expectations of 15% revenue growth for the next three years, and the company achieves 22% per year, you become a hero, the employees are happy, and investors smile too. But what if you had set those goals and expectations for 35% annual growth, not based on logic but rather just wanting to set stretch goals? Would anyone be happy, or would people be stressed? Would turnover be higher or lower? Would investors feel deceived? Would the board think about replacing you with a new CEO?
Imagine you are Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry is the perennial king of setting huge expectations. He invariably shoots for the SuperBowl, boldly declaring his true goal to every sports reporter during the summer. The team often starts out well. By the time the Boys are 4-0, everyone is talking about the idea that this year is the year. And then, one loss happens to the Eagles, and the team tightens up, the smiles and laughs become rare. A few more losses and by the end of the season, expectations are a big reason that the Cowboys desperately need a win, and a little help from the Giants, just to squeak into the Wild Card round.
What if Mr. Jones, just one time, built a high-caliber team capable of reaching the SuperBowl, but told everyone that we will focus on giving 100% effort, teamwork, and winning one game at a time this year?
Don’t limit yourself!
It is important to understand that expectations cut both ways. Many people suffer the consequences of limiting expectations. A person who does not expect to get the job, doesn’t often get it. A person who doesn’t expect to get promoted usually doesn’t get promoted. A person who doesn’t expect to find the right girl does not look for her. A person who doesn’t expect to hit the winning shot, misses badly, or more likely, passes the ball to a teammate. So, while it often pays to set expectations a bit conservatively and to not expect perfection, it is important to not set them in a way that limits your destiny.
In the biggest of contexts, expectations often determine who lives and who dies. Doctors and nurses see this every day at the hospital’s ICU. The person who expects to live, the person who expects to recover, is far more likely to make it than the person who expects that this is, indeed, the end. In the same way, people who expect to stay spry, fun, energetic, enthusiastic, and young-at-heart live fuller lives than those who expect to slow down in retirement. Expectations define the envelope of your life.
The choice is yours.
The good news is that you have the power to choose your expectations. Wise expectations set up a positive domino effect that builds momentum. If you become an independent thinker who is not heavily influenced by the opinions of others:
You set and control your own expectations.
Expectations will then fuel your perceptions and decisions.
Your perceptions will absolutely impact your gratitude.
Gratitude is the crucial key to day in and day out happiness, and
Daily happiness is the secret catalyst which fuels greater success.
There is wisdom in being careful about your expectations, setting them mindfully, and avoiding unrealistic hype. Understanding yourself and striving to beat your own bests by just a bit is far healthier for your psyche than comparing your performance to that of others. Win one game at a time, while deciding what “score” is a winning score. If you become a master at setting accurate, mindful, sky’s-the-limit expectations, you will become more optimistic, more positive, more forgiving, happier, a better decision-maker, and ultimately a more grateful and successful human.
There are moments that challenge all of us during our lives, but these moments are rarely shared on the candy-coated world portrayed in people’s Facebook and Instagram posts. The truth is sh*t happens, and lots of things are out of our personal control. The challenge is how to rekindle your optimism, how to keep living life in a positive way after a disaster, after an emotional bomb, after a huge mistake, after a terrible disease or a devastating loss.
The short answer is that you have to develop great resilience because odds are good that you will be challenged sooner or later. It is easy to say ‘develop great resilience‘ but much harder to implement in your life when you need it. I found this video on TED that I think illuminates the path, shows people that there can be hope, there can be a new dawn after that all too dark and stormy night. This is not a happy story, but for me, I find it full of hope. I think it is well worth watching, especially if you are suffering through challenges right now:
My takeaways from Lucy’s story for becoming more resilient are 1) to understand that bad sh*t happens to almost everyone, 2) to focus on the things that you can control, 3) to look for the positives, no matter how small they are, 4) to be grateful — for gratefulness is the key to happiness, and 5) to ask yourself if the daily choices that you are making are helping you or hurting you.
If you think you can, you can. These five steps can put you back on track if you believe that they can and commit fully. I personally believe that two additional aspects are important and help a lot: a) trusting that God exists and that God will help you adapt and overcome, and b) investing the time and energy to build strong social bonds and friendships but these were not part of Lucy Hone’s perspective.
No one said life would be easy, or fair, or perfect, but life is good — if you are grateful for what you have.
Humility used to be (and still is) one the finest aspects of being a good human. It has been on the endangered list for some time, but social media may send it the way of the dodo bird or the Tasmanian tiger.
Social media networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, have taken on a life of their own: we know have the digital twin of ourselves online, but these digital recreations are exaggerated. While the good side of social media is that it helps people stay more connected, most only post the best moments of their lives, because the regular moments are often, too average, too regular. This candy-coat-my-life phenomenon seems to have a natural gravity of its own. People seek the extreme and pictures are often retouched and filtered to the point that no color reflects reality. No one has a blemish, everyone is tan, and a number of people look slimmer than they are in real life. The only exception to candy-coated is the other extreme, when someone goes public with a torrid affair or an egregious deception, perhaps in a fit of rage or revenge, but these posts are few and far between. 95% of normal life never appears.
Other catalysts that warp the digital picture are FOMO (fear of missing out) and the human inclination to competition. The result is that many posts highlight trivial items like the new Louis Vuitton just purchased, or the truly excessive vacation while it happens. Others see this and begin to think this is normal, so they join in, spending their savings or credit card limits with over the top purchases and vacations too, followed up with the obligatory posts.
The end result is that nearly everyone appears to be bragging about themselves and their fabulous lives on social media, which is extremely efficient at popping up the brags on everyone else’s smartphone.
In the middle of all the consumerism and braggadocio, being humble is crucially important to live a good life. Consider these wise words from Malcolm Gladwell, the best selling author of the Tipping Point, Outliers, and David and Goliath, during his current class on Masterclass.com:
Social media, in its efforts to connect us, is also tearing the fiber of what makes us good. Narcissism is now playing 24/7 online. I’m not saying quit all social media cold turkey, but we need to see it for what it is and treat it like beer or wine. Having a little, every now and then, isn’t bad, but partaking in copious amounts — paying too much attention to your “likes” and “comments”, feeling jealousy about someone else’s jaunt to Cabo or Tahiti, paying too much heed to other people’s commendation or condemnation, and making it the center of your view and perspective on life — is incredibly dangerous to your own state of mind and wellbeing.
Three quotes to consider:
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. — C. S. Lewis
Humility is really important because it keeps you fresh and new. — Steven Tyler
Humility with open more doors than arrogance ever will. — Zig Ziglar
If you are a regular reader, you know that I’ve been railing against watching worthless TV and streaming media for years. But not all media is created the same and of course there is wonderful stuff too. John Krasinski — in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — just proved that the message within the “content” matters much more than the money invested in professional production. It also helps to have a positive attitude and a can-do belief in yourself.
I recommend spending the next hour+ watching these episodes in order. It is a brilliant display of optimism, when we need it. The lesson is simple — optimism always matters. We should not forget this lesson a few years from now, when a lot of people will start to forget and go back to complaining about traffic and all the banalities of daily life.
Thanks everyone, especially John, for illustrating the power of optimism.
I’m a believer in feeding your mind “good stuff” just as we feed our bodies “good food” to maintain health. Below is perhaps one of the best commencement speeches of all time, given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.
Don’t confuse “the best” with the “most entertaining” for there is a difference. This is not the most entertaining commencement speech. Most commencement speeches follow a tried and true motivational formula, oft focused on love of neighbor and staying true to your purpose and passions. This is not that, either. But I believe it is well-worthy of 30 minutes of quiet contemplation.
Please note that David is clearly a brilliant writer — and that is a diversion — too many people admire writing for the clever prose itself. Don’t get distracted by it — its not the quality of writing that makes this commencement speech one of the best. The message is what matters.
One important question: Are you willing to dedicate 30 minutes without your iPhone? Do you have the will to leave it in another room, silenced?
“Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
— David Foster Wallace
I hope that you learned something, discovered something, today.
We live in a culture currently obsessed with “perseverance” — and I have no doubt that perseverance is a great aspect of people that succeed. Best sellers like Grit by Angela Duckworth are flying off the digital shelves. Watch this short presentation by Angela for a sense of the message.
There is a problem, however. Deciding when to change gears, when to find a new job, when to sell a stock position, when to try a new method, when to get off the hamster wheel is not nearly as heralded but, in my mind, just as important. I have plenty of examples of when I stuck-to-it far too long, wasting valuable time and resources when the writing was on the wall.
If I had a superpower, I would want it to be the ability to make the right decision at the opportune time. What decision have you been putting off that needs to be made? Chasing the wrong thing is very much akin to climbing the ladder of success for years, only to later find out that it is leaning against the wrong wall.
The old Kenny Rogers song extolled that…”You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run” in the context of poker, and life. Optimism is much easier to develop and keep when you are zen-aligned with a pursuit that really fits your passion and purpose.
Don’t wait too long to make those decisions. I think it is high time that I sell Schlumberger stock.
I have always maintained that discerning your purpose and finding meaning in your life are crucial to understand your own true north. Once you know your true north, all decisions, all challenges, all setbacks become easier to overcome. A fulfilling life is more than simply finding a state of happiness — meaning helps you achieve lasting happiness.
If you only read one personal improvement book, I believe “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” should be considered. Stephen Covey did a masterful job in help people figure out their own guiding principles and find meaning.
Watch the following video by author Emily Esfahani Smith. It is great food for thought. I especially found her points about storytelling to oneself enlightening — I can see how a person dedicated to optimism will build an internal story about themselves that will help them adapt and overcome:
Between occasional big problems and frequent little annoyances, issues dominate our days which can lead to stress, complaints, and unhappiness.
If you listen to the news, the sky is falling and the world is ending. If you watch your social feeds, it seems like everyone else is living a near perfect, all-too-fun life, and you are missing out most of the time. If you watch the tele, the celebrities are traveling to far away beach resorts, living the dream, spending money as fast as they possibly can — and you are not rich nor famous, worried about your next test grade, or bill to pay, or your 20 pounds to lose.
If you listen too much to the people around you, they are often negative, all complaining about something 90% of the time, because 90% of the people haven’t figured it out. It is all too easy to become a lot like the people you associate with most of the time. If you try to solve other people’s problems, many times you will find that they are unsolvable, or people don’t actually want a solution, and you wind up infecting your own perspective with their negativity. Humans are wired to spend far too much time thinking about fears, uncertainties, and doubts — it is part of survival instinct back when we lived in the wilderness surrounded by dangers, but it is not all that helpful now.
Above all, you have to be comfortable being your independent self, because if you worry about how the crowd judges you, you are sure to bring yourself down. The crowd is — by definition — average, not extraordinary.
There is good news — through it all, a small independent-thinking group of people have found the key to happiness, while most people seem to be pursuing it, confused as to what will make them happy, hoping to find it someday.
The answer is simple: what are you grateful for? You don’t need 100 friends if you are grateful for the one true friend that you have. You don’t need dozens of Jimmy Choos if you are grateful for that one pair that are just right. You don’t need thousands of followers “liking” your posted picture on Instagram, if you are grateful for your sister who loves you with all your heart. If you are grateful for the smallest of things, from a great t-shirt to a puppy that can’t wait to see you, you can be happy. After all, there is no perfection in this world.
The next time you are down, make a list of the good relationships, the family that cares for you, the stuff that you love, the freedoms that you have, the goals and memories you cherish, the awesome popsicle you just had, the fact that you live in America and don’t have to carry water from a well two miles back to your hut. Being grateful for your blessings is the answer to being happy, day in and day out. It is not a pursuit. Thankful people are happy people.
Life is too short and there is too much opportunity, to work in the wrong environment.
I’ve had a bit of time to ponder this question, having worked for nearly a dozen managers of all different types, from John Wayne, to Yoda of Sales, to a master ambassador diplomat, to Rambo of customer service, to a micro-manager that meant well, to Action Jackson, and more. Most became lifelong friends and role models, each with an important lesson to teach. Looking for common factors that mattered most to having a positive, empowering environment in which one can succeed, I believe my quote below sums it up:
I have had two chapters of my life when I had the privilege to take the lead and manage others. My theory followed these exact lines, but was summed up simply by Coach Lou Holtz’s simple formula for success in life — (1) Do Right, (2) Do the best you can, and (3) Treat others the way you would like to be treated — in a picture that watched over me at my desk. Anyone that has read my blog knows I admire Coach Lou — here’s a great commencement address if you have never seen Coach speak:
I believe it is the leader’s responsibility to communicate a clear vision and specific goals, then find and inspire the best out of each person entrusted to him or her, first gaining understanding and mutual respect, then adjusting his or her coaching and style to best fit each employee. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves in a ‘my way or the highway’ top-down scenario, where a manager is far more focused on pleasing his or her chain of command, rather than asking good questions and helping the team succeed. People can accomplish great things when they trust you and know you are out for their best interest.
Don’t waste years working for the wrong person. I’ve been fortunate and had great managers who simultaneously taught me important concepts while helping me succeed, inspiring me to think out of the box, take prudent risks, break barriers, and achieve new heights. If necessary, have the courage to make a move. Drawing a couple of new cards to improve your poker hand, trying new things, challenging yourself in mind-invigorating ways, makes life worth living.
PS. Send me your feedback using the contact form. What important aspect did I miss in my quote above?
If you are a frequent reader of OptimismMan.com, chances are you already realize that I believe there is a significant dark side to social media, beyond just the time that it appropriates rather insidiously. Every technology comes with positives and negatives, but often, the negatives are ignored until the evidence is overwhelming, common sense be damned.
Simon Sinek is one of my favorite thinkers and speakers. In the interview below, he covers an amazing amount of ground, primarily focused on what plagues Millennials in the workplace and in life. Lots of factors have conspired to make this generation have a sense of entitlement without hard work. Simon makes some great common sense connections to the role social media is playing, which results in far less real lasting connections and relationships, which ultimately matters in one’s happiness and gratitude.
Is your company designed so that its managers and associates will be happy at work?
Probably not. The executives that build companies tend to focus almost exclusively on financial results. “we have to make the quarterly earnings or heads will roll…”
But is that smart? Do stressed-out people produce better results?
Is your kid’s select club soccer team, basketball team, or volleyball team designed and concerned about player happiness?
Probably not. Most teams that cost parents big bucks and travel to out-of-town tournaments focus on those win/loss results. “Our team has to win — I’m not paying $3 grand a year to play in Division 2!”
But is that smart? Do stressed kids of stressed, minutes-played-monitoring parents learn and play sports better than happy, relaxed kids?
Is your kid’s school designed to keep kids happy while they are learning and maturing?
Probably not. Results darn it, results! “We must get the grades up to ensure our federal funding.”
But is that smart?
When will leaders, when will companies, when will institutions, when will we — finally realize that happinessis a critical ingredientthat leads to above average results and success, not a by product that comes after the struggle?
Start with that which is in your own control: Is your family focused on happiness? Are you focused and committed on making it so? Are you planning and doing things to make the family experience happier? What would it take to add a little more happiness into this week? A little happiness goes a long way.
Do you have influence on the job front? Are you a manager at work? Or are you a leader on your team? What can you do to inspire the spark of happiness within your little sphere of influence? Don’t be too surprised if your group starts out-performing as people smile more — just don’t tell the hard-nosed CEO until you have a one heck of a track record!
“There is no duty so much underrated as the duty of being happy.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Change your own world. Be happy to enjoy your life — you will find that success becomes easier when laughter is the norm. Most people are about as happy as they decide to be. Don’t pursue happiness — Make it instead.
Worrying about stuff that might or might not happen seems to have risen exponentially as we have become more interconnected. Facebook and the rest makes us feel like we are not succeeding fast enough or big enough when compared to all those people we personally know. Kids born today seem set up from birth to worry more than any previous generation.
Since I believe we are the architects of our own mental psyche, I believe we can train ourselves to worry less by being mindful about our own thoughts and living in the present.
Below is an article that I stumbled upon on LinkedIn.com from a guy named Brian Howe.
I don’t know Brian, but his article hits the nail on the head. Here it is in its entirety because I don’t know how to link to a LinkedIn article without LinkedIn trying to track you and acquire you as a user. If you like it, consider following Brian Howe, from Inuvo, Little Rock, Arkansas on LinkedIn:
7 Ways You’re Making Your Life Harder Than It Should Be
Life can be a real struggle sometimes, no question about it.
As a culture, we worry way too much. In fact, we worry because we are worried that we are spending too much time worrying. We are worried that we don’t know our futures; we are worried that we don’t know exactly what people think about us and we are worried whether or not the stove was left on when we left the apartment and when we get back the building will be burnt to the ground and it will all be our fault….. Its sad that these are the sorts of things that keep us up at night. These little things can end up making your life 10x harder and drive you insane.
We live in a generation that is so anxious at every blinking moment of our lives. Here are some ways you’re making your life harder than it should be.
Sticking to a plan: You have begun to realize that life is a stage, and that you are the star of your own show. So, if life starts to stray from the Hollywood script you naturally start to panic like a middle schooler who missed their line in the annual school play.
It is common that your life is actually a lot more complicated and a lot more stressful. That scripted sitcom you’re used to watching where no-one seems to ever work but can still afford that awesome apartment is by no means reality. So, if life doesn’t follow the standard Hollywood script: its ok, no one’s does.
Dwelling on the past: Dwelling on the past can literally turn you into a crazy person and will eventually get in the way of the life you are currently living. How many times have you been standing in the shower, coming up with snappy comebacks to all the arguments you never won? Let it go – it happened 3 years ago.
Being dramatic: It’s easy to think this way. The moment something doesn’t go as you planned, you immediately think about the worst-case scenario: They’ll kick you out of college, you’ll be fired, Donald Trump will give up all his power to Putin. It never ends up being as bad as you thought, so keep that in mind the next time you feel like toasting your bagels in the bathtub.
Taking things personally: That jerk cut you off in traffic, you turned in your resume but haven’t received a response, your grandma cancelled weekly bingo with you because you’re not as fun as she thought.
Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes you’re the collateral damage. It doesn’t feel good, but don’t take it personally.
Comparing yourself to others: Its late at night, you have chip crumbs on your shirt, a diet coke on the coffee table and Netflix just asked you if you’re “still there” because you’ve been binge watching your favorite sitcom for the past 5 hours. Scrolling through your Facebook feed, you might feel the same feeling of disappointment we all do when we see another person get engaged, score a brand new job or buy that fancy new car. Heck, even the kid who ate the teacher’s goldfish in middle school got his life together. All you see is an endless stream of achievements, re-affirming your choice of bourbon for breakfast.
Keep in mind that Facebook is the highlight reel of people’s lives and they’re only going to show the touchdowns and tackles, not the part where they throw up on the sidelines or fumble the ball for a loss.
Taking risks: No one will care if you take a leap of faith and you fail – they’ll just be impressed that you took the leap in the first place.
Caring way too much: We spend a lot of our lives caring what other people think of us but, no offense, no one thinks about you all that much – apart from your mom of course. But this is a good thing: once you wrap your head around the fact that almost everyone is an egotistical narcissist, you realize that they care about themselves too much to pay much attention to you…and that’s liberating.
I hope that you enjoyed Brian’s article. Choose to worry less… just do you best today… and consider rationing your social media exposure to a couple of times per week — I believe it will help.
Happiness is a state of mind, unlocked only by being grateful, not only for the big blessings in your life, but for all the little details too. I believe people are missing too much of their life by “living within their smartphones” although the smartphone is a blessing too. I searched for a quote that captured it all, but, unable to find one, I created my own:
So then I stumbled into Jane McGonigal, a game designer who argues that gaming can play a role in avoiding the most typical regrets of the dying. I believe in questioning everything, so today, I’m simultaneously questioning her game-centric conclusions as well as my previous thinking, wondering if the time “spent” gaming might actually be more of a time “investment” than I ever appreciated. I don’t have a conclusion just yet — maybe I never will — but I suggest watching her excellent talk and thinking about it for yourself, especially if you have a kid that spends a lot of time gaming right now:
Success is empty and hollow without sincere, good friendships. The problem of course, is that most friendships are not true lasting friendships; rather, they are shallow friendships of convenience that do not weather the storms, the misunderstandings, the disagreements, the years, or the separations. A friend is not a friend if they only show up when they need your support.
As with all worthy pursuits in life, great friendships require optimism and action. To have great friendships, you must invest valuable time and positive energy. Even the most beautiful flower withers without water, food, and sunshine.
Consider my top ten thoughts about friendship:
True friendships are one of the best measures of a person’s net worth.
A person is rich if he has three true friends to count on, no matter what happens over the coming decades.
True friendship always is based on true understanding of each other. Friends strive to understand and to be understood.
Do not plunge into friendship quickly. Be nice to everyone but intimate with few. Make sure those few have passed many tests.
Trust is essential. It is worse to distrust your friend than to be deceived by her.
You must seek, you must invest the time, you must plant the seeds and nurture the saplings of friendship, dozens or even hundreds of times, to earn one true lifelong friend.
Listening, remembering, understanding, empathizing, collaboration, and forgiveness are critical ingredients of friendship. People that only talk of themselves barely rank as acquaintances.
Keeping your friend’s secrets secret, even if she did not ask you to, is priceless.
Friendship requires that you tell your friend the truth and your sincere opinion, not what he wants to hear.
True friends love their friend, no matter her faults, frailties, and blessings. A true friend only wishes for the best, no matter the situation.
Is there a good friend that you have neglected over the last few years? Today is the day to pick up the phone and rekindle that connection. We are all too busy — that’s not an excuse. The paperwork can wait. Don’t let him or her get away for lack of effort and optimism at your end.
People, especially young people, are predictable when asked what their important goals are in life, goals that specifically will help them achieve happiness. Invariably, money and fame appear at the top of the list.
Well, it turns out that there are few comprehensive studies about happiness over a lifetime. Studies are relatively easy to pull off when they only last a few years. Studying people for a lifetime, on the other hand, almost never happens.
In previous posts, I have argued that, in my humble opinion, gratefulness is the key to happiness. Robert Waldinger makes the case that the quality of your social relationships is the most important key to achieve happiness. Maybe just maybe, gratefulness and great relationships go hand-in-hand and rank as #1 and #2. No matter, the clear point is that money and fame are not answer.
2016 might be the year to take a hard look at your own life. Are you investing the time and energy it takes to build extraordinary relationships?
A lot of people talk about achieving ‘balance’ in life. The part that no one seems to mention is that every single decision in life comes with a price, and that balance is an achievement of wise decisions made.
I’m a fervent believer that you must strive for balance: it is far too easy to succumb to the gravity of daily work, so much so that you miss the rest of your life, including your family, your health, and brilliant moments of peace and happiness.
The most difficult decisions wind up costing a lot in time and effect your financial flexibility, ultimately changing your outlook and life’s balance.
1. Every decision has a direct price to be paid
2. There is a domino effect, a likely consequence, that changes what decisions are available to you, next, after the immediate decision is made
3. There are both direct and indirect benefits
4. There is a cost to some other aspect of your life’s balance
Those that foresee these four aspects clearly and are right about what the short-term and long-term domino effect will be — at least 80% of the time — will have a better balanced life.
How can you improve your decision making results? Write the facets of each decision down, with what you anticipate regarding the four points above, before you decide, in your permanent journal. Then, revisit and review on a set schedule (at least once a year) — there is a lot to learn when you see how your own thinking actually plays out. Most people forget the logic that they followed in the past and are therefore doomed to repeat mistakes of judgement in the future. Don’t forget to write down what you learn, as that too changes over time.
Learn to make decisions better. I believe that it can be done.
When’s the last time you really laughed out loud? Or could not stop laughing? I think for many people, me included, its too long ago and too rare.
If you are one of these people that seem to have forgotten how to live life laughing — and there seems to be more and more of us as we turn 40, and 50, and 60 — what can you change to rediscovered your un-jaded, childlike heart?
For more than 100 years, the population of developed countries has coalesced and formed sprawling metropolises, as cities offered ever greater opportunity to excel and succeed. One of the prices paid for the density of humanity is the gridlock of traffic that is the bane of any thriving metro today.
I question everything, study everything, and observe how people react to situations. Traffic seems to be a nearly universal challenge that brings out the worst in most people. Traffic, so mysterious, so out of our own control, leads even the best of us to complain. I now believe that there is an invaluable lesson to be learned while you sit in daily traffic, yet exceedingly few manage to learn it.
Bear with me for a second while I make a pretty big leap: This lesson can be traced to the extreme hardships vividly documented by Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl’s mother, father, wife, and brother all died in Nazi concentration camps. Viktor endured hunger, cold, and brutality in Auschwitz and Dachau. He knew that he would probably be killed any day. He lost all his belongings, including his life’s work, which was a scientific manuscript that had taken extraordinary time and care to create.
Frankl’s situation was dire. He could have easily given up all hope – most people in fact did. But Frankl emerged from the tortures an optimist by cultivating an empowering idea: he reasoned that even in the worst of situations, a person has the freedom to choose 1) how they perceive the circumstances and 2) to create their own meaning from them. Gordon Allport notes in the preface to the third edition of Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” classic, this is what the ancient Stoics called the ‘last freedom’. The evil of torture is not so much physical, but the active attempt to extinguish it is dibilatating. A favorite quote of Frankl’s was Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
Fast forwarding to Los Angeles, Houston, NYC, Dallas, Portland, or Chicago, the minor torture one endures daily is traffic. It infuriates, it shreds our positive attitude, it becomes a great source of complaints, and there is no escape or relief. It is clearly far less daunting than Viktor faced, but traffic is a modern, incessant torture just the same.
The lesson to be learned and appreciated is similar. In concentration camps, Frankl learned that, even though captive, he had the freedom to either let his circumstances infect and corrode his attitude or he had the freedom to choose his attitude and make the best of it. The lesson of traffic is the same: you can either let it get to you, or you can choose to enjoy the day, traffic be damned.
Consider these quotes for a minute:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
— Viktor Frankl
“The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.”
— Andrew Bernstein
“Nothing gives one person so much an advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”
— Thomas Jefferson
“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
“Complaints, either voiced out loud or simply thought out inside your own head, are a mental cancer that ruins your day. Decide to have a great day, no matter what happens, and you will have your great day as your reward.”
— Bob Sakalas
This masters-level life lesson is universal. You often cannot choose your circumstances but you can choose your attitude. This applies universally to almost any situation you can’t control. If you are a student, you can’t control that teacher who doesn’t do it your way. If you are a parent, your teen will argue to the point of no return. You may have coworkers that drive you crazy day in and day out. There is no finite list of circumstances as Bernstein pointed out above.
Recently, I unwittingly started complaining — mostly inside my own thoughts — about how much back-to-back business travel I had to endure in the last few months. Although I didn’t voice it often, it was on my mind and my internal complaints began to corrode my attitude, which has a domino effect on everything like productivity, effectiveness, clear thought, focus, peace, optimism, and gratitude. This week, I finally realized the downward spiral I had inadvertently decided to put myself on. I have the freedom to ‘whistle a happy tune’ as I board flight 255 or let the circumstances infect me. Only the former helps things turn out for the best.
Tomorrow morning, I will sit in traffic, thankful for the opportunity to catch up on my stock market awareness while I listen to CNBC. I have seen the light. I hope that you do to.
I.M. Optimism Man
PS. FYI, I did in fact whistle the tune to the Andy Griffith show as I boarded a 737 this week.
I have two teenage daughters so I’m truly conscious of how difficult it is to grow up in America’s totally faked “what is beauty” ideal. Every TV show, every magazine, every commercial seems to tell girls that they should not be happy with what God gave them and that they should strive for an ideal that is frankly, a mirage.
Here is a typical beauty shot:
Dove ran a series of commercials that exposes how contrived the concept of beauty has become in society. Please watch these two videos as a reminder, especially after looking at the picture above:
I hope all parents can convince their kids, and especially their daughters, that beauty starts from inside. What they see, far too often, is skin deep and unattainable without a lot of photoshop distortions.
I.M. Optimism Man
PSSS. Here are the other two parts of my Have a Daughter? Series… Part 2 and Part 3.