I’ve written my blog for a dozen years in a row, so it seems like a good time for a bit of a sabbatical. My posts on Optimisman will be stopped for most of 2023 because I have decided to focus on a special project: I am heads down finishing my third book and a comprehensive website that will accompany it. Sometimes you just have to clear the deck, commit, and laser-focus to get great stuff done.
Too often, people in positions of power believe that they are true leaders. It simply is not true, especially in companies where employees have a broad range of options. Influence through the implied threat of salary control or employment ejection only gains compliance, not the influence that makes greatness possible.
Leadership requires inspiration, initiative, vision, optimism, competence, confidence, and fairness in equal parts. Notice that a leader doesn’t have to be likable, approachable, or even a good coach, although these aspects help. While all aspects matter, it all starts with a vision.
I believe the two goals of leadership are to (1) get your team working on the same goal, the right goal, with great teamwork, and (2) convince members to do their best work and to put in their best effort into a project.
These goals are easier at the start of any new venture or mission. Later on, when the initial strategies and tactics stumble, when the initial vision fails to create the desired outcomes, a leader will be tested: these are the moments that separate the great ones from the rest. Will the leader successfully pivot to a new vision, inspire his or her team anew, and instill confidence that the new strategy and tactics will be the ones that lead to success?
This is why we see huge turnover of head coaches at the top of sports teams. When the going gets tough, when people start questioning their competence, confidence, and vision, can they survive the test that requires flexibility, adaptability, and leadership. One of my personal favorites, Juergen Klopp, is having this test right now at Liverpool.
I learned a painful lesson more than a decade ago: People will stop buying in to you, if you stop having a crystal clear vision and supporting high level plan. Over seven years, we had gone through Plan A, pivoted to Plan B, and tried Plan C, but then admitted to not having Plan D in the face of massive industry changes. Would you care to guess what happened next? While the three strike rule was undoubtedly a factor in my case, any vision is better than no vision. You must communicate your vision in a compelling fashion 24/7.
This lesson applies to every manager at every company, not just head coaches in the Premier League or the NFL. Take a simple self-assessment:
Do you have a clear vision?
Are you taking the initiative to make it happen?
Does it inspire your people?
Do they know it well and tell others without stumbling or hesitation?
Do you lead by example?
Is each member of your team putting in his or her best enthusiastic effort in years?
Is everyone on the same page, focused on the same goal?
If not, you better get busy or your “leadership” position may not last as long as you hope. Your team is either growing or dying, there is no path to happiness if you only seek to maintain the status quo.
By the way, I’ve observed over the years that you do not have to be the ‘appointed leader’ in corporate settings to be a leader. Many of the appointed are just managing, not inspiring. Leadership is influence, pure and simple. It is more than possible to inspire your colleagues with vision, belief, competence, and confidence in equal parts.
Why not be optimistic and start selling your vision today? Fortune favors the bold.
It’s a busy busy life. Even when we are not busy with work, we tend to be rushing to a game, picking someone up, running an errand, or adding to our never-ending pile of stuff.
When I take a full hour to sip my french roast — without looking at email, texts, Instagram, or the news — before getting started in the tornado of the day, my outlook changes for the better. I have time to think without the torrent of input from the outside world. Fragmented thoughts from previous days magically knit themselves into coherent ideas. Only after that hour of peaceful thinking while watching the sun rise or staring into the fire dancing in my fireplace, and occasionally jotting a sentence in my notebook, do I pick up my device and reattach to the priorities of the present. This early morning hour is an amazing counter to the urgency conspiracy I have often written about.
When I make this time for thinking, my life tracks in a dramatically better path. This isn’t the ‘mindfulness’ everyone is fashionably harping about these days — most people seems to want to disconnect their mind from work and projects and just notice the little things (and sure, that’s worthy too) — but it is mindfulness in terms of getting your ducks in a row as to what you want to create, who you want to influence, and what your priorities are right now. Developing the skill to consciously decide what you want to think about (and what you won’t think about) will pay dividends for your entire life.
Daily commitments can often get in the way, especially when you must make it through the TSA gauntlet in time for a 6:30 am departure. It can be hard to restart your habit, but I see these hurried days as a great reminder of the importance of making time to carpe mane, to seize the morning — to think. I do believe this is a morning habit — although I’ve tried, I personally can’t seem to achieve the same zen thinking time after quitting time. The hassles of the day creep in and I never seem to get into the bliss zone of zen thinking.
I hope that you give it a try. It will first require the discipline of getting up a little early, of not pressing snooze on that alarm three or four time in a row, but it is worth it. One hour per day of open-minded yet focused thinking will help you become more optimistic, action-oriented, and priority-focused all day.
For every two hundred experts I meet in the information technology space, I’m lucky to meet one great simplifier, one great illuminator of the truth and what matters. This ratio must change, because people are getting absolutely overwhelmed with data and information, a tidal wave on an exponentially accelerating growth path.
A simple thought for you: You can create and enjoy a great career for yourself if you decide to be the great simplifier, the one who shows people what truly matters most and why “it” is crucial, because almost no one else has this goal. Distilling complexity to its essence and communicating it effectively is not easy work, and often you spend weeks just trying to think it through with little to show.
Our colleagues, customers, and partners are trying to get a refreshing drink, but this is the source:
If you can be the person that converts the information into a much more usable and concise form…
Life moves fast after you graduate. Many become so busy that they feel like are no longer steering their own lives. They find that their “prime” time vaporizes like a rain shower hitting the sunbaked Texas interstate on an August afternoon.
A college graduate recently asked me for three life-hacks that could really help him in the real world, three habits that I wished I had developed over the last decades, three disciplines that I’m 100% certain would have made a positive impact on my success.
It was a great question that really made my stop and think a bit. After sleeping on it, I came back with three that I believe in my heart would have made a remarkable difference:
1. Strategic-Big-Rock Progress:Pre-plan and then accomplish at least one task of long-term lasting strategic value each and every week.
Keep yourself on track and honest with yourself by writing it down on your calendar. Every Sunday evening or Monday morning, plan the #1 task you will accomplish this week that will have lasting value, that will serve you well, that will increase your momentum 90 days into the future. Then get it done as early in the week as possible, and most definitely before Friday, making notes in the calendar as well.
If you accomplish just one item of lasting value each week of your life, you will go much farther than most, because the world too often keeps you busy on items that are worthless in less than a month. Jim Rohn said that a person should “work harder on oneself than you do on your job” and there is a lot of truth in that observation. Improving your own capabilities is most definitely a task of strategic long-term value. What new asset did you create this week? Creating new stuff usually matters longer-term. I didn’t institutionalize this “one strategic-big-rock a week” habit in earnest until my late 40’s, but in hindsight, it would have made a remarkable difference had I started much earlier in my life.
2. Details-Matter: Write Three Details Down, without Fail
Writing details down, as they happen, is one core idea, but I would suggest implementing this life-hack with three separate email accounts, reserved exclusively for your own use. A person easily forgets 95% of their life’s details if he or she does not make daily notes. If you keep journal, you will be amazed at how much creative and wise you become over time. The act of writing it down makes it easier to remember, and when you don’t, you know where to look.
Go to Gmail and create three accounts like this (what you call them is up to you but you don’t want anyone to ever guess these addresses so you don’t get spam email): email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
I then suggest creating three accounts at outlook.com that match the Gmail accounts (so that you can have a second backup copy). For example: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Then, go into each gmail account and use the forwarding option to forward all received email from each account to the corresponding account in outlook: email@example.com -> firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com -> firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com -> firstname.lastname@example.org
As a last step, create these three gmail email addresses as contacts in your smartphone. Now, when you send an email to the gmail version, a copy will also be forwarded to outlook. The idea is that if you ever lose access to gmail, you will still have the outlook copy, and vice-versa. If Google someday makes gmail no longer free, you would have a backup with their main competitor, Microsoft.
Use each of these accounts only for its one designed purpose:
Send three emails to your perma.journal each day (an easy way to remember is to send one with every meal). Attach pictures. Create tags. A person forgets 95% of their lives if he or she does not make daily notes. If you keep a perma.journal, you will be amazed at how much creative and wise you become over time. Writing it down makes it easier to remember, and when you don’t, you know where to go. I started journalling electronically about 12 years ago, but had I started 30 years ago, I would have been so much better off.
Send every idea that you ever have, as soon as you have it, to your perma.ideas account. Inspirations grow on top of each other, and connect in wondrous ways over time. Writing it down, and reviewing all your big ideas will make you much more creative over your lifetime.
Send everything you learn about anyone you meet, in a conversation, to your perma.peoplenotes mailbox. Great relationships are the backbone of success. Remembering another person’s kids name, and that she plays soccer for the Solar Soccer Club in Dallas, matters immensely when you meet that person again two years later. We all forget 95% of what we learn about people, but the best genuine networking geniuses do not, because they write down details as they discover them. Nothing is more important than the little details – remembering those details shows that you truly care about a person as an individual.
Why email instead of apps? Email is a global standard that is far more likely to survive the test of the next 50 years while smartphone apps and the companies that publish them are way less likely to survive the test of time. Even if email changes a lot, I’m certain there will be universal import/export mechanisms to move the data forward if need be. If you want to create a secure, heavily encrypted mailbox, Switzerland based Protonmail is a smaller company alternative to Google and Microsoft. Lastly, it doesn’t hurt that email is mostly free at this time.
3. What Gets Measured, Gets Improved:Measure and log your progress on the fronts that matter most.
Measure your net worth (assets – liabilities) every month and write it down, without fail. What gets measures gets improved. A growing, positive net worth = freedom. Freedom is the most amazing of luxuries, far more amazing than anything you can buy at the mall.
Measure your health and fitness. I have successfully lost weight my simply taking the time to write down my foods and calories on the MyPlate app. The measurement help make you conscious of what you are consuming.
If it is important to you, measure it in writing. I find the easiest place for these notes is on my calendar, but where you store the logs is up to you.
My three life-hacks for the college graduate are all about writing it down. No matter if your are planning a project of strategic value, writing down the details about a new co-worker or customer that you just met, or tracking your net worth over time, the act of writing it down, even if you use the palest of ink, is still 1000% better than trying to keep it exclusively in your head.
Becoming all that you can be requires smart choices, thoughtful discipline, and unbridled optimism. Best of luck.
We all want to make an impact. We all want to not only be heard, but we want to influence people to see things our way, to do things that we would like them to do.
Scientists, in a number of independent studies, have come to the conclusion that more than 80% of people follow a very predictable pattern of positivity, energy, and attention. Four out of five people are more receptive and optimistic during the morning, turning far more closed and negative in the afternoon, and then become a bit more positive in the evening. A person’s openness follows a classic “hype curve” pattern.
I think many of us “know this” biorhythm from our own experiences and common sense. Unfortunately, our logical brain often overrides common sense when we schedule an important customer meeting at 1:30 pm on a Thursday or when we pitch our new idea to our manager right before quitting time.
Timing matters. Imagine that you could bat .333 vs. .250 on moments when you try to influence others, over the course of a 40 year professional career. What would be the domino effect of one additional positive outcome, one more decision in your favor, 50 times per year? Career momentum builds over time, just like compounding returns in the stock market.
Schedule your meetings at 9 am, 10 am, and 11 am. You might have to wait a few more days to land the favored time slot, but that’s ok. Would you prefer that your doctor is more attentive or less attentive as she diagnoses your problem? Would you prefer that your boss decide that you deserve the raise now or decides to push you off until the following year? Would you prefer to sell your spouse on your idea for a vacation this year? It is actually surprisingly simple to let natural rhythms work in your favor.
It doesn’t have to be hard to be effective. Optimism combined with good timing is a winning strategy.
Almost every news agency, almost every professor, almost every politician, and every Bernie supporter declares in no uncertain terms that income inequality in America is worse than it has ever been and it is getting much worse each year in recent decades. The rich are getting richer and it is an absolute travesty: the hidden message is that capitalism is bad and socialism should be seriously considered.
I have argued that the wise question everything, but on the topic of income inequality, I have been as guilty of not questioning the statistics as anyone else, because the same discussion has been pervasive, on every channel, on every news media feed, and within every debate. I was wrong to assume that this “must be” right.
As we all know, statistics can be used to distort reality in favor of the person, or party, or movement trying to make the point. British statesman Benjamin Disraeli put it this way, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Fact checking and truth bending is reaching an all time low.
This week, I read an eye-opening op-ed by former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm. He pointed out two facts that no one is talking about, but facts that matter in the income inequality discussion, if a person wants to be fair and balanced, if a person wants to use common sense. The first fact is that “income” numbers used in the statistics are gross income, before all the taxes and re-distribution to people who get money from the government. The second fact is much of the money given to the less fortunate does not count as income when they receive it!
So, to be clear, let’s say one person earns $100,000 and pays $20,000 in taxes, and compare him to another unemployed person with $0 income who receives $20,000 in government assistance in forms like welfare, food stamps, etc. A common sense view would be that the fortunate person had $80,000 in income (after taxation) while the less-fortunate person had income of $20,000 from government re-distribution, giving us a $60,000 income inequality. But that’s not what the statistics-makers are doing. Instead, we show that there is a $100,000 gap between these two.
This is not a rounding error. It is intentionally, grossly, misleading. Here is a quote from the article:
Americans pay $4.4 trillion a year in federal, state and local taxes. Households in the top two earned-income quintiles pay 82% of the tax bill, although they never see most of this money because it is deducted directly from their paychecks. When measuring income inequality, however, the Census Bureau doesn’t reduce household income by the amount paid in taxes. Had it done so and counted all transfer payments as income, inequality from 1967 to 2017 would have increased by only 2.3% instead of the reported 21.4%. That’s a difference of almost 90%—a rather large error.
I’m not saying that income inequality is great. I believe we should strive to help everyone escape poverty. But is our recent “trend” a total catastrophe demanding the end of American capitalism and the call for Nordic socialism? The common-sense gap has increased 2.3% in 50 years, and I’m certain that is skewed by just a few like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. This mirage is not harmless. People are running for office and winning elections on this house of cards. The government is making zillion dollar spending decisions based on this illusion. The very fiber of America’s system is being questioned and subverted.
I have no doubt that capitalism, business, personal ingenuity, and freedom are the keys that made America great. Let’s fix what needs to be fix, but we must see the problems accurately to fix the right things. Bending stats to distort the severity and trajectory of a problem does not lead to smart decisions and positive outcomes.
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.
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
Many, if not most people tell me that they are too busy. Too busy every day. Too busy at work, too busy at home. They are just barely keeping their head above water, juggling it all.
I believe there is an art to finding time, making time for what’s truly important versus what is “busy-work.” A lot of busy-work looks and feels important and urgent but, if you ask yourself “will this task or project that I’m spending time on matter 90 days from today…” the answer is often no.
This question — will this task or project that I’m spending time on matter 90 days from today — is the one that we must ask ourselves dozens of times each day. This question is the one that separates wasteful tasks, mediocre tasks, and good tasks, from great tasks. Only the great tasks contribute on your journey toward a longer-term worthy goal. Good things to do are usually the insidious culprit — they prevent us from doing the great things to do that matter the most — while we feel reasonably good about what we did ‘accomplish’ during the day.
To find more time, we must evaluate the longer-term value of each task before accepting it, before telling someone that you will get it done. Once you say that you will, keeping your word, which is crucial to maintaining your personal integrity and the other person’s trust, takes over. You must learn to say “no” much more often — up front, politely, respectfully, but unequivocally. The “art” is to say “no” in such a tactful way that people still look at you as a core colleague or friend. It usually helps to explain that you have other pressing priorities and give them some ideas of how they can get their task done without your direct involvement.
Your positivity about your life is fueled by progress toward your goals and grand purpose. The simplest habit is to pre-plan your week and each day so that you don’t give in to other people’s tasks and urgencies.
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.
Success in life is simple but expect it will be hard. You have to be up to the challenge. Discipline matters. The world does not owe success to you — you must adapt, overcome, and never give up. You must be optimistic, you must believe that you can. All this and more is captured in Admiral McRaven’s brilliant address at University of Texas’ 2014 graduation. You can watch it on YouTube but I believe it is more memorable if you read it.
“Make Your Bed”
This speech was delivered by Admiral McRaven as the commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.
President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the class of 2014. Congratulations on your achievement.
It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT. I remember a lot of things about that day. I remember I had throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married — that’s important to remember by the way — and I remember that I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.
But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening, and I certainly don’t remember anything they said. So, acknowledging that fact, if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least try to make it short.
The University’s slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I have to admit — I kinda like it. “What starts here changes the world.”
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT. That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. That’s a lot of folks. But, if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people — and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people — just 10 — then in five generations — 125 years — the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
800 million people — think of it — over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world — eight billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of 10 people — change their lives forever — you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan: A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the 10 soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush. In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children’s children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it. So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is — what will the world look like after you change it?
Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better. But if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better a world. And while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation or your social status.
Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward — changing ourselves and the world around us — will apply equally to all.
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harrassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.
But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.
So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.
It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surfzone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach.
For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. You can’t change the world alone — you will need some help — and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.
If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class, which started with 150 men, was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each. I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about five-foot-five.
The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the midwest. They out-paddled, out-ran and out-swam all the other boat crews. The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh — swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.
SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.
If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.” A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus.
A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue — and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult — and more circuses were likely. But at some time during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.
But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students — who did two hours of extra calisthenics — got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength, built physical resiliency.
Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.
But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net and a barbed wire crawl, to name a few. But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three-level 30-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot-long rope. You had to climb the three-tiered tower and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.
The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977. The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.
It was a dangerous move — seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation the student slid down the rope perilously fast. Instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego. The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One is the night swim.
Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente. They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently. But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position — stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you — then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout, and he will turn and swim away.
There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.
So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training. The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles — underwater — using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.
During the entire swim, even well below the surface, there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you. But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight, it blocks the surrounding street lamps, it blocks all ambient light.
To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel — the centerline and the deepest part of the ship. This is your objective. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship — where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.
Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed — when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.
It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud.
The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit — just five men — and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up — eight more hours of bone-chilling cold.
The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night, one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.
The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singingbut the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person — Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala — one person can change the world by giving people hope.
So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell.
Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world — for the better. It will not be easy.
But, YOU are the class of 2014, the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.
Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone.
Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up — if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.
And what started here will indeed have changed the world — for the better.
Do you have three mentors who you can call — easily, quickly, without a lot of formality — when you need advice?
One common thread I find, whenever I meet someone who has enjoyed tremendous success in their career, is that he or she has been blessed with great mentors and role models, often early in their life. The truth is that wisdom is a hard thing to earn. It often comes with the price of a lot of mistakes, pain, and suffering. If you make too many mistakes financially, in your career, or in your personal life, you can find yourself in a precarious position where the dominos no longer line up, where none of your options is optimal.
Great mentors are one great lever that can help you make wise decisions, see new possibilities, give you the guts to take the right risks, and give you the confidence and will power to see tough times through.
The picture above is Guy Kawasaki. I’ve read all his books and I find him wise. If I ever get the chance to meet him, I would love to recruit him as a mentor. If you don’t know Guy, here’s a nice intro to his thinking. The cool part though is that there are a number of wise guys that have published some of their best thinking, so reading the right books is a great idea if you can’t develop that personal connection.
Do you have three great mentors? If not, start asking the right people for advice. Ask others who is the wisest person that they know. Make an effort to meet these people, and plan a gift of an idea to make the right first impression. Most people that have had a substantial life experience will share advice readily if they perceive that you are sincere and respect their opinions. Having five mentors is better than three, and seven is better than five.
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?
It starts with “We the people…” America is not about one leader dominating the agenda, getting stuff done for the other 350,000,000 of us. Yet, it seems that we (and everyone in the news business and even everyone at Saturday Night Live) have forgotten this truth.
Here is a brilliant speech, barely 12 minutes long, by a British Rabbi — believe it or not — that does a great job in reminding us why the selfie generation is confused and misguided, why America, the land of immigrants, is special, and what all of us in America must remember: Sound ideas and ideals matter far more than Trump, Pelosi, Pence, or Schumer:
Rabbi Sacks is on point regarding the need for embracing and seeking out differing points of view with respect, the incredible need to maintain our country’s identity, and to enthusiastically embrace individual responsibility.
We can solve problems, we can flourish, we can stay true to our ideals, and we don’t have to bankrupt future generations. It takes great vision, hard work, “we the people” working together, and a lot of optimism. I’m no magical thinking “just coexist’er” — but nothing happens with no-compromise extremism. Without optimism, that real hope and belief that there are better days to come, it will not happen. Right now, about 50% of this great country doesn’t believe it can happen — but we need all of the people, not just some of them, to roll up sleeves, to compromise, to work together, and start getting things done.
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.
Everything is become more complicated and interconnected. When faced with a difficult decision, almost everyone adds more detail, weighs more aspects, analyzes the problem to the n-th degree, and creates complexity. I personally work to sell solutions that create timely, valuable, and actionable insights from data, a topic that is truly large, complex and ever-growing, given the explosion of “big data” as zillions of devices connect to networks and every aspect of business becomes digitized by computers. The result is thousands of topics from hundreds of vendors and millions of powerpoint slides.
Every data analytics vendor dilutes its message with every word added to every powerpoint slide. Every company uses the same buzz words, every slide says much of the same, and the final slides always says the preceding 100 slides prove that this vendor’s specific solution is the best decision.
I believe there is great opportunity for a bold optimist that decides to zig when everyone else is following the zagging herd: simplify the message while everyone else complicates it.
If I was the customer, I would limit each presentation to 30 minutes, with 20 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of question and answer. I would limit each vendor to the top 5 reasons their solution is best for my company. I would limit the number of powerpoint slides to 10, and the number of words per slide to 20.
Would less be better? Of course it would, because each vendor would be forced to distill their message to the essential. The customer could better compare each vendor’s solution at its core essence. TED presentations are phenomenal and each is limited to 20 minutes.
This applies to all aspects of life, and it offers you great opportunity to shine. If you are a lawyer, are you better off with a rambling 40 minute final argument or a 5 minute hard hitting one? If you are a teacher, is it best to spend hours on one topic or boil it down to the essential while students are still paying attention? If you are a preacher on Sunday, will the congregation pay better attention to 40 minutes of fire and brimstone… well, you get the picture. I have found that if you “train” your target audience that your message will be short, they will pay close attention because they appreciate your approach.
Anyone can become the Master of Succinctness with effort and expertise. People love those that can make their point, with impact and simplicity. Less is more, when done well. Your career will flourish. I’m still amazed that the Gettysburg Address was less than 300 words, yet most big data analytics slides have 100 words of broken English on each.
PS. In case we forget, here is the Gettysburg Address, all 272 words of it…
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
We have lived through a truly divisive decade and election. In just the last few months, Trump pulled off a shocker win, the Brits decided to bail out of the European Union, and the war on terror continues with senseless killings everywhere that have numbed people emotionally: a headline that dozens of innocent citizens have been slaughtered doesn’t disturb the hustle and bustle of everyday life. A common theme through it all is that we should not help people that need help and kindness, for fear of the few radicals that strive so hard to dominate the media headlines. Many people today care less about others than ever, at least in my lifetime.
I believe we need to think about this spreading darkness, this growing callousness that is becoming all too acceptable. If we want a better society, with hope for a better future, we can’t trudge along with the herd, yelling for closed borders and constant distrust. I’m not so naive to think that intelligence should not be improved and that we should retreat from chasing the bad guys, but broad brush exclusion of needy and helpless is a steep price to pay for it darkens our own soul, our society, our future.
Pope Francis addressed this when he spoke at the TED conference this month. I hope that you click and listen, or read the transcript below. We need to keep our individual souls hopeful and believe in a better tomorrow, or the terroristic few will ultimately win an important victory.
[His Holiness Pope Francis Filmed in Vatican City First shown at TED2017] 0:15 Good evening – or, good morning, I am not sure what time it is there. Regardless of the hour, I am thrilled to be participating in your conference. I very much like its title – “The Future You” – because, while looking at tomorrow, it invites us to open a dialogue today, to look at the future through a “you.” “The Future You:” the future is made of yous, it is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others. Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions. 1:27 As I meet, or lend an ear to those who are sick, to the migrants who face terrible hardships in search of a brighter future, to prison inmates who carry a hell of pain inside their hearts, and to those, many of them young, who cannot find a job, I often find myself wondering: “Why them and not me?” I, myself, was born in a family of migrants; my father, my grandparents, like many other Italians, left for Argentina and met the fate of those who are left with nothing. I could have very well ended up among today’s “discarded” people. And that’s why I always ask myself, deep in my heart: “Why them and not me?” 2:35 First and foremost, I would love it if this meeting could help to remind us that we all need each other, none of us is an island, an autonomous and independent “I,” separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone. We don’t think about it often, but everything is connected, and we need to restore our connections to a healthy state. Even the harsh judgment I hold in my heart against my brother or my sister, the open wound that was never cured, the offense that was never forgiven, the rancor that is only going to hurt me, are all instances of a fight that I carry within me, a flare deep in my heart that needs to be extinguished before it goes up in flames, leaving only ashes behind. 3:38 Many of us, nowadays, seem to believe that a happy future is something impossible to achieve. While such concerns must be taken very seriously, they are not invincible. They can be overcome when we don’t lock our door to the outside world. Happiness can only be discovered as a gift of harmony between the whole and each single component. Even science – and you know it better than I do – points to an understanding of reality as a place where every element connects and interacts with everything else. 4:27 And this brings me to my second message. How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us. How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries. Only by educating people to a true solidarity will we be able to overcome the “culture of waste,” which doesn’t concern only food and goods but, first and foremost, the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people. 6:08 Solidarity is a term that many wish to erase from the dictionary. Solidarity, however, is not an automatic mechanism. It cannot be programmed or controlled. It is a free response born from the heart of each and everyone. Yes, a free response! When one realizes that life, even in the middle of so many contradictions, is a gift, that love is the source and the meaning of life, how can they withhold their urge to do good to another fellow being? 6:50 In order to do good, we need memory, we need courage and we need creativity. And I know that TED gathers many creative minds. Yes, love does require a creative, concrete and ingenious attitude. Good intentions and conventional formulas, so often used to appease our conscience, are not enough. Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The “you” is always a real presence, a person to take care of. 7:52 There is a parable Jesus told to help us understand the difference between those who’d rather not be bothered and those who take care of the other. I am sure you have heard it before. It is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” – namely, “Who should I take care of?” – he told this story, the story of a man who had been assaulted, robbed, beaten and abandoned along a dirt road. Upon seeing him, a priest and a Levite, two very influential people of the time, walked past him without stopping to help. After a while, a Samaritan, a very much despised ethnicity at the time, walked by. Seeing the injured man lying on the ground, he did not ignore him as if he weren’t even there. Instead, he felt compassion for this man, which compelled him to act in a very concrete manner. He poured oil and wine on the wounds of the helpless man, brought him to a hostel and paid out of his pocket for him to be assisted. 9:26 The story of the Good Samaritan is the story of today’s humanity. People’s paths are riddled with suffering, as everything is centered around money, and things, instead of people. And often there is this habit, by people who call themselves “respectable,” of not taking care of the others, thus leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road. Fortunately, there are also those who are creating a new world by taking care of the other, even out of their own pockets. Mother Teresa actually said: “One cannot love, unless it is at their own expense.” 10:26 We have so much to do, and we must do it together. But how can we do that with all the evil we breathe every day? Thank God, no system can nullify our desire to open up to the good, to compassion and to our capacity to react against evil, all of which stem from deep within our hearts. Now you might tell me, “Sure, these are beautiful words, but I am not the Good Samaritan, nor Mother Teresa of Calcutta.” On the contrary: we are precious, each and every one of us. Each and every one of us is irreplaceable in the eyes of God. Through the darkness of today’s conflicts, each and every one of us can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around. 11:27 To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree. It is like some invisible yeast that allows the whole dough to grow, that brings flavor to all aspects of life. And it can do so much, because a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another “you,” and another “you,” and it turns into an “us.” And so, does hope begin when we have an “us?” No. Hope began with one “you.” When there is an “us,” there begins a revolution. 13:16 The third message I would like to share today is, indeed, about revolution: the revolution of tenderness. And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need. 14:13 Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness. I like when I hear parents talk to their babies, adapting to the little child, sharing the same level of communication. This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other. God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love. 15:23 Yes, tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other. There is a saying in Argentina: “Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.” You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness. Through humility and concrete love, on the other hand, power – the highest, the strongest one – becomes a service, a force for good. 16:52 The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.” We all need each other. And so, please, think of me as well with tenderness, so that I can fulfill the task I have been given for the good of the other, of each and every one, of all of you, of all of us. Thank you.
Let’s not sit idle while hope is extinguished. America must stand for more than that. We are the shining city on the hill that sets the example for all.