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.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Playing the Long Game

Every generation for all of recent history has faced various forces in their work life – the speed of innovation and change, politics both internal and external, macroeconomic factors, etc. Each generation has faced different circumstances requiring different skill sets to thrive within them. But there is a single skill, or rather two separate skills packaged as one, that has a common thread throughout history. It helped people just as much in 1932 as it helps us now. The only difference is that it’s becoming much rarer (and quickly so) in today’s attention-deficient world.

That skill is what I call playing the long game, and it’s broken down into continually learning and working hard over long periods of time.

Continually Learning

Being a continual learner is arguably more important now than it has ever been. With rapid change comes a need for a continual understanding of the change. It’s those that commit to personal growth, both in intelligence and skills, that stay ahead of the curve. Knowledge and information also happen to be more accessible than ever before, so any excuse to not learn is likely invalid. You can teach yourself how to code for free, get an MBA packaged in an online course or book for the price of a couple coffees, or you can take any number of free online courses from Ivy League schools.

The formula is simple. Change is happening quicker than ever yet the speed and depth at which most of us learn haven’t increased. This creates a gap between the new frontier of work and the workforce that is supposed to drive it. And in that gap there’s opportunity.

Working Hard

Hard work has historically been a commodity. It was the rule, not the exception, for most of recent history. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Hard work – the kind where you simply put your head down, absorb, learn, and adapt for years on end – has now moved from a commodity to a rarity. Get rich quick propaganda and stories of young entrepreneurs making millions of dollars in a short amount of time have created a “quick fix” mentality for much of the population, specifically the younger generations. Commitment to longevity has been replaced by quick jumps to trying this or that new thing. Much like the learning gap mentioned above, the hard work gap creates an opportunity for those paying attention to it. The person that is willing to work hard and commit to the long haul has a distinct advantage over those that will be in and out of various paths in six-month chunks.

The world of work has changed. Moving forward, the people that win will be the people that understand success is a persistent (wo)man’s game. Be as persistent as you are intelligent, and you will win in the long run. Hard work combined with the curiosity to never stop learning is an unstoppable combination. In a world where it is rare, those who commit to playing the long game will be the ones that shape history.

How to Remember What You Read

Last year I read 55 non-fiction books. That’s more than a book per week for an entire year.

But what does that even mean for me as a learner? Was it information that I applied to my life? Was it information that I absorbed and can later recall? Did those 55 books stick, and somehow move the needle in my life?

Some, yes. Others, no. But they all, in theory at least, held some wisdom that is worthy of remembering. Much like the people in our lives, there’s usually something to be learned from the books that cross our paths.

Reading large quantities of information is important to me. In a similar vein as “hard work”, reading is insurance for staying ahead of the general population and lesser versions of myself. But just like working hard can be detrimental if that work isn’t intelligent work, reading a lot can be detrimental if that knowledge isn’t absorbed and applied. Wasted reading, just like wasted hard work, purely equates to wasted time. So there must be a balance of quantity and absorption, consumption and application.

To solve for this as 2017 approached, I instituted a note-taking process for remembering the key takeaways of the books I read. These notes are intended to answer the question:

What is the distillation of this book, and how do I apply it to my life?

The result is a very simple 3×5 note card process that I complete after finishing a book. I don’t take notes while I’m reading because I want to focus on the big themes – the paradigms not the details, the models not the components – which tend to reveal themselves once the book is completed. Once I’ve finished reading a book, I then go back and skim the book while doing the following to create my note card system.

  1. Quantity Each book gets (5) 3×5 note cards. No more, no less. The actionable outtakes of a book should be like an elevator pitch – short and memorable. By using just 5 note cards it forces me to think through what is most valuable.
  2. Title In the upper-left of each note card, I write the title of the book.
  3. Topic In the upper-right of each note card, I write the topic or category of the book – entrepreneurship, leadership, parenting, habits, etc.
  4. Takeaway The front of each note card has a key takeaway. These are the things I want to remember and apply to my life.
  5. Research The back of each note card has concepts that I don’t fully understand, and I write them down as a reminder to read more about them. This oftentimes leads to my next book to read.
  6. Organization I then organize the note cards by topic first and title second. They go in a plastic note card holder, separated by topic.

This process, over time, will give me a large warehouse of actionable information in various disciplines at my fingertips. Think about having several years worth of leadership content, distilled into actionable insights, at your disposal whenever you need. That’s my ultimate goal. I’ll have a library of information to revisit when I want to dig deeper or refresh myself on a specific topic.

This process also has a secondary benefit of reminding me of the books I’ve read in the past. I’m regularly asked by readers about this book or that book, and by having this system in place I’ll be able to quickly reflect on whether or not a book was a good read when I pull up the relevant note cards.

Information is useless if not applied. This system helps me absorb and apply information instead of just consume it. It took me many years of heavy reading to get to this point, and while it works for me it may not work for you. But wherever you’re at in your reading journey, think critically through building your own system for applying knowledge. Better to read one book and apply it than read ten books and forget them all.

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.