The thing about advice…

Advice. It’s been given since the dawn of communication, and will continue be given as long as us humans are around. It’s the packaging of choice for encouragement, rebuke, and wisdom. It’s good, it’s bad, and it’s neutral. And it’s the thing that can lift us up, and thing that can hold us down. But the main thing to understand about advice…

It’s given and received by imperfect people. And that’s okay.

Hidden beneath the veil of advice is personal experiences, biases, blind spots, ego, insecurity, confidence, and every now and then…wisdom. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give advice. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t receive advice. It means that we should filter advice. And we should filter it without attaching emotion to it.

If it’s useful to us, keep it. If it isn’t, discard it. Just like this post.

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An Antidote to the Low Points of Life

I was lying in bed curled up in a ball, unable to do much more than glance around the room, trapped in my own head.

I wasn’t physically ill. I wasn’t coping with some great loss or catastrophe in my life. I admittedly didn’t even have that much to be upset about. But that didn’t change the fact that I was here – internally caving to the throes of life that all of us deal with.

I won’t bore you with the details, but a string of things occurring in my professional and personal life had left me mentally and emotionally paralyzed, unable to do anything other than retreat to my bed for the majority of this particular weekday.

I hesitate to use the word depressed, because there are people that have clinical depression deeper than I can even fathom, but that’s what it was a form of – depression brought upon by a string of setbacks. As the saying goes, when it rains it pours, and it was pouring in my world.

Staring at the ceiling trying to process what was going on in my life, I was at a loss for what to do next, at a loss for how to claw my way out of another low point of life.

But being a writer that focuses on the mindset and habits that allow us to create our best selves, I knew the answers were at my fingertips. I just needed to dig in and apply them. So I set out to do what I’ve done so many times in my life – simplify the situation and execute on the solution. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Focus on Strengths All of us are good at some things, and not good at others. This was a moment in time where I needed to get back to focusing on my strengths. When you’re in a depressed state, any minor thing can set off a string of emotions and reactions. You’re frustrated, on edge, and sad. Doing things that are a struggle for you can result in deepening that state. Instead of pushing myself in areas that I struggle with, for the next two weeks following my bed-ridden day I only did things I was good at and that came easy to me. More on this in point #2.
  2. Help Others My outlet to do these things was other people. I gave hours and hours and hours of my time away to others, using my strengths to help others in the areas they weren’t as strong in. I joined the board of directors of a company I deeply admire. I spent a day with a founder helping to craft a management strategy. I spent a day with another founder helping to craft a sales strategy. I picked up the pen and wrote what you’re reading right now.

In effect, I just kept giving myself minor rewards by doing things I knew I was good at. When you do things you’re good at, you naturally receive the egoic reward of success. Couple it with giving that thing away for free to others, and you double dip into the tub of happiness by also receiving the egoic reward of giving.

I would be exaggerating if I said this was a perfect recipe for getting out of my low state. While it did get me out of it, I am still regularly returning to the state, albeit for shorter periods of time. What was days-long prior is now hours-long. But now when I dip back into the state I am armed with tangible and recent experiences of getting out of it. This helps me understand that it’s temporary, and these things pass in due time (and due action).

Life is not perfect. Even for people like me who write about creating the best version of ourselves. The reason I write is because, like all of us, I also have that worst version of myself that I’m trying to keep at bay. Creating our best self sometimes just means slightly improving our worst selves. And that’s okay. Because this too shall pass.

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Lemons: A Mental Guide to Life’s Hurdles

Yesterday would have been Cade’s third birthday. His birth and subsequent death seem like it was simultaneously ten years ago and ten weeks ago. Some things are as fresh on the mind as the day it happened while others are distant wounds, only remembering them from the scar left behind and not the pain. Needless to say, it’s been a journey since that day, with many ups and downs and everything in between. What follows is a reflection, a mental guide if you will, on how we can best navigate the lemons that life throws at us. They can be sour, or they can be turned into something much better, entirely dependent upon what we do with them. It is our reactions in life that determine our happiness – our responses to an uncontrollable world. Enter lemons.

Loss

Loss is arguably the deepest pain one can feel in the course of life. Whether it’s a family member, a close friend, or a child, loss unveils the harsh reality that life equals death – a veil that we so often try to not think about. The term that comes to mind when contemplating loss is “unfair.” It’s unfair to us, to the person we lost, to humanity. This is usually when emotions are steering the ship, not logic. Because death ultimately is fair. In fact, it’s the fairest thing we experience. One in, one out. We live, and then we die. Every single one of us. The situation itself may very well have felt unfair – a child gone too soon just seems wrong, a drunk driver seems avoidable, a deadly disease seems preventable. But death and loss in and of itself are the common thread that binds all of humanity. Even in those seemingly unfair circumstances, they lose their “unfairness” when we take a step back and realize how many people have experienced a similar loss. What was unfair before becomes a shared experience with countless others. This escape from the unfair mentality is step one in overcoming the lemon that is loss. Seen in proper perspective, these losses are things that bind us, not separate us. Unfair is isolation. Fair is shared experience.

Step two is using the pain for good. The only way to turn a negative into a positive is to do something with it. There are people out there hurting in a similar situation that need you. They need the comfort of someone who’s been there and can share in their experience with them. By doing this that thread of humanity becomes connected and stronger. When we use our pain for good we inherently make the world and the tiny sliver that we play in it better.

Anxiety

We live in an anxious age. From politics to racism to war and terror, we needn’t look far to find something to be anxious about. And this anxiety can become crippling. We have access to more information than ever before in history, and with this information comes a responsibility to use and view it appropriately. This is the part that hasn’t caught up with the speed of change. We’ve democratized access to information without democratizing how to absorb it and what to do with it. It’s like giving a teenager access to a credit card without teaching them the basics of personal finance. They’re on a collision course with financial disaster and don’t even know it. This is the state of information and anxiety.

Our brains process millions of pieces of information every single day, most of which aren’t absorbed. The ones that do stick are a product of frequency – the more we hear them the more sticky they become. What do you think are the bits of information that stick in our minds when we’re constantly reading a feed of shock headlines, people’s inherently biased opinions, and click bait designed entirely to suck us in? If you guessed the anxiety-riddled information, you’d be correct. Scare tactics are what makes the media world go-round, and what keeps a large chunk of us coming back for more.

The keys to overcoming this anxiety-driven information are frequency and appropriate understanding. Frequency is the practical solution and is as simple as controlling our inputs. I disabled my Facebook account last June as the political landscape began to heat up. I stayed off until December when I assumed the flame had died down. I was wrong. My feed was even more littered with emotionally-ridden opinions and little respectful dialogue. And so after a matter of days, I once again disabled my Facebook account, this time likely for good. In an instant, I fundamentally shifted the primary source of my information input, which in turn shifted my susceptibility for anxiety. And the news? It has little to no room in my life, not because I don’t care but because I know the truth isn’t found in the news. When it comes to opinion-driven commentary the truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle, and this is where appropriate understanding comes in. Two people can have the exact same set of information and come to two very different conclusions. This is human nature, and trying to unify us under a single mindset is a biologically impossible and undesirable task. While we may not agree with someone, that doesn’t discount that they came to their conclusion based on the cards and information they were dealt. When we combine a ruthless distillation of our information inputs with an appropriate understanding of other’s opinions, we limit our triggers for anxiety and can respond to the world with logic, not emotion.

Struggle

Every human on the planet experiences high points and low points. Some days life is great, and some days life is miserable. There are a number of factors that go into determining the highs and lows, but it’s our mindset that affects how long we stay in the lows. Maybe you’ve recently been laid off from a job. Maybe you’ve been on the job hunt for a long time and your hope is running thin. Maybe your relationship is on the rocks or you feel mostly alone in your journey. In these moments I like to think of the big picture and the bigger picture. The big picture is when we step back from our situation and remember that we’ve been here before and came out okay on the other side. This isn’t our first low point, and life generally worked out in our favor in the past. Our previous struggle led to our previous breakthrough. This is simple, but it’s true in its simplicity. Lows are temporary pit stops on a long journey. Understanding this is what inserts hope back into the situation, and that hope keeps us moving forward until we’re out of the valley.

The bigger picture is taking an even bigger step back and viewing our problems in the context of the billions of humans that have called this planet home. We have our struggles, but our struggles are not unique, and they likely are nowhere close to the struggles that other humans experience daily. We may not have a job, but we likely have the resources or people in our lives to know where our next meal comes from. We may feel insecure or lonely, but at least we don’t have a war being fought outside our front door. We may feel stuck, but at least we live in a time and place where we can create our own opportunities. Struggle, in essence, can become a selfish endeavor. We get caught up in the “me” when what we need is a step back into the “we.”

We are all born into this world, and we all are taken from this world. In between is a series of highs and lows, and having the ability to see the forest through the trees is what makes it tolerable. We are anything but unique in this sense, and that’s a good thing. Our struggles aren’t special, and we don’t deserve special attention or circumstances because of them. When we accept this we become free. Because while we may still be chained to the circumstance we are not chained to our mindset within it. The lemons are handed to us, and we choose what to do with them. Sour or sweet, the choice is ours.

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The MVP of Happiness

Happiness. If there is a word that we’ve overly complicated more than this, I am not aware of it. (Well, maybe success, but that’s for another article…)
There’s books for it, classes for it, coaches for it, and drugs for it. And yet…we haven’t seemed to get any better at attaining it.

Is it possible that we’ve taken something that should be engineered in the language of simplicity and instead attempted to engineer it in the language of complexity?

I’ve been on the consumption side of the happiness publishing industry more times than I’d like to admit, and the same patterns continually emerge. When I take these countless thousands of pages of information and analyze my own life in conjunction, these patterns become crystallized.

In the product development world an MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, is an early version of a product used to collect the maximum amount of learning about customers with the least effort. In effect, it’s the most attainable version of the product that becomes the starting point for its evolution. Minimum input for maximum output.

When I apply this MVP line of thought with my beliefs and observations about happiness, the product becomes pretty simple.

Something to Strive For

Our positive anticipation of the future gives us hope for what lay ahead. We need a reason to work hard, a reason to move forward, and by intentionally striving for something to accomplish, we add fuel to that future. This doesn’t have to be overly lofty or ambitious either. Competing in a race, bumping up a few spots in the sales numbers, starting a blog. Simple and attainable goals to strive for add purpose, and in turn happiness, to our daily lives.

Someone to Love

No, this doesn’t mean we need to be in a relationship to be happy. But it does mean we need relationships, whether romantic or not, in our lives. It’s no secret that we’re wired to be social beings, and by surrounding ourselves with people that we love we create a foundation that makes the rest of our lives operate better. It can be family, it can be a few close friends, or it can be our significant other (or ideally all three). Social relevancy feeds one of our oldest and most hard-wired desires for connection.

Something to Celebrate

Achievement is like an immediate and significant dose of endorphins. We love checklists because we love to check things off of the list. We love goals because it feels good to achieve them. We love small wins because they make the journey to the big win worth it. Achievement is the key to happiness in our work, which most of us spend a good chunk of our lives absorbed in. We’re better off pursuing things that we’re good at than things that we’re passionate about, because the former gives us satisfaction from achievement, while the latter doesn’t.

When it comes to MVPs, the goal is to iterate based on what you learn. The same applies to this MVP of happiness. It is the starting point. We strive for goals and we iterate based on what we learn. We engage socially and we iterate based on what we learn. We achieve and celebrate and we iterate based on what we learn.

The result is happiness, and that is a product we’re all sure to love.

The Disproportionate Advantage of the First Step

Two steps are easy. One step is hard.

The first step requires effort while what follows flows from inertia.

By taking the first step in any endeavor we give ourselves a disproportionate advantage for every step thereafter. The tracks have been laid and keeping the tracks going is much easier than getting them started.

All too often we ponder the second, third, tenth, and hundredth steps before ever taking the first. The complexity of eating the elephant keeps us from ever taking bite number one.

Entrepreneurship. Writing. Projects. Passions.

They all require a first step, and it is always the peskiest of the bunch.

But conjure up the effort and courage required to take it and our paths fundamentally change by the shape we’re giving them.

In the act of creation, the disproportionate advantage of the first step is our biggest ally, inaction our biggest enemy.