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May 2015 Archives

Beginner’s Mind

It happens to all of us. We get worked up about something that we’re really confident is a for sure thing. Then they call the lottery numbers and we’re still broke. Being disappointed by or in something extends way beyond buying lottery tickets and hoping to strike it rich. It’s easy to be disappointed in just about anything when we realize it didn’t meet our original goals or expectations.

A few days ago I read a post from Marc Chernoff on 3 Ways You’re Making Your Life Harder Than It Has To Be. While not directly related to this discussion, one of the things he points out is this situation:

Imagine you had a ripe, juicy apple sitting on an otherwise empty table in front of you.  You pick it up eagerly, take a nibble, and begin to taste it.

You already know how an apple should taste, and so when this one is a bit more tart than you expected, you make a face, feel a sense of disappointment and swallow it, dissatisfied.

Or perhaps the apple tastes EXACTLY as you expected – nothing special at all.  So you swallow without even pausing to enjoy its flavor, and you move on with your day.

In the first scenario, the apple was disappointing because it didn’t meet your expectations.  In the second, it was too plain and unexciting because it met your expectations to a T.

Do you see the irony here?

It’s either not good, or not good enough.

Let’s think about that for a second. In this scenario, the consumer of the apple is inherently disappointed because the apple was either nothing remarkable or just sucked. Both are levels of disappointment, the former being veiled and not all-encompassing.

One way to avoid so much disappointment in life is to go into things with and open mind. The other, stop having expectations for things you aren’t intimately familiar with and be flexible. I can walk into Whole Foods and subsequently walk out and be disappointed they don’t have a certain brand of something I want. I could also walk into Whole Foods and buy an alternative brand to something I want because the original brand wasn’t available. In the latter situation, I’m no longer disappointed I couldn’t get X product. Sure it wasn’t the brand I wanted, but I went into Whole Foods with the idea that it might not actually be there in the uber-specific format I desire.

In consuming the apple from earlier, Marc goes on to say:

Now imagine you try this: eliminate your expectations of how the apple ‘should’ taste.  You don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know, because you haven’t tried it yet.  Instead, you’re genuinely curious, impartial and open to a variety of flavors.

You taste it, and you truly pay attention.  You notice the juiciness, the grainy texture of the skin, the simultaneously sweet, tangy and tart flavors swirling around your tongue, and all the other complex sensations that arise in your awareness as you chew.  You didn’t know how it would taste, but now you realize it’s brilliant!  It’s brand new, because you’ve never tasted THIS apple before.

Mindfulness practitioners often refer to this as “beginner’s mind,” but really it’s just the outcome of a mindset free of needless expectations.

Beginner’s Mind. All of this boils down to having a beginner’s mind. Going into a situation without pretense, already being convinced, or otherwise having a jaded view.

Also called “keeping an open mind.”

Forget Your Goals

All through life we set goals for ourselves in order to accomplish things. Sometimes we set a goal to lose 20 pounds by summer, or to finish fixing cleaning up the garage.

We spend so much time focusing on the end, that while we make our way there, we never feel like the actions in the middle are as important.

The problem is, they are. In fact, they’re more important than the goal.

Take the example of losing 20 pounds. That sounds like a fantastic idea, one that I could probably get behind, myself. The problem with this idea is that all that seems to be important is crossing the 20-pounds-lost mark.

We’re so focused on the end, we don’t believe everything we’re doing in between is crucial, too, and end up not giving it as much attention.

Here’s a better example that I can take from my personal experience.

Since I started this blog January 2015, I’ve shared 74,000 words. For comparison, 60-80,000 words is a book. I wrote a book in a sliver over four months. If I woke up, January 1, 2015, and set a goal to write a book and have it finished by May 7th, I’d freak out. I’d also probably not finish it.

In climbing to 74,000 words, I focused on the day-to-day. I set writing goals for myself that didn’t involve an endgame. These plans I made didn’t have a finish.

If I came to realize then what I realize now, I wouldn’t have even called them goals. What’s a good word for something you do on a regular basis for which you set aside time?

A project? a habit? It could be called anything you want, so long as you find these criteria to be most important:

  1. Figure out what you want to accomplish.
  2. Set aside time at whatever interval you find appropriate.
  3. Don’t think about #1.
  4. Do whatever it is you planned on doing during the time set at #2.
  5. Repeat #3 and #4 as necessary until you’re where you want to be.

The first step comes in the planning phase. This is where you sit down and determine what you want to do. Maybe you really do want to lose 20 pounds. It’s totally okay to have that goal.

Step two involves figuring out when during the week you’re going to sit down (or stand up) and work on the task at hand. Depending on what it is, you can break it down in to multiple sub-tasks. If you’re writing a book, each time you sit down and write can be a task all on its own; write a page every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday for example.

Step three is the most important of all: stop thinking about your end goal. Seriously. Everything I’m telling you comes down to this: if you focus only on the end, you’ll never appreciate all the work you’re doing to get there. That 1.2 pounds you lost last week will seem like nothing and you’ll eat your sadness.

Step four is action time. You’ve determined when you’re going to work, so now work. Enter into the work mindset with the idea that you’re just there to complete the task. You’re only doing whatever it is you’re doing at that time. You entered the gym and are going to lift weights. You’re training for a marathon but tonight you’re only going to focus on running five miles.

Step five involves continuing to work and not focusing on your end goal. Tracking progress can be acceptable but is a slippery slope. If you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t recommend it. If your goal is open-ended, then by all means. Tracking progress on an open-ended goal is great. It forces you to think about it in smaller chunks because there’s no end, only continual betterment of yourself.

I don’t want to tell you to stop having goals. Having a goal or five is awesome and I encourage it. It’s the focus and or obsession over said goal that’s the problem. I keep going back to the 20-pounds-lost goal because it’s such a good one to use as an example. In order to lose 20 pounds, you have to lose one pound, then two pounds. Then three. If nothing I say but one sentence sticks, let it be this one: what you’re doing today to reach your goals in life is more important than reaching the actual goal because without those incremental steps, you’ll never make it.

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What do you think? Is there a goal in life you’re trying to accomplish but don’t feel like you can ever make it? What do you think would happen if you stopped focusing on the end and started paying attention to what you’re doing about it right now? I’d love to hear your story in the comments, via Twitter or email. If your story is good, I might revisit this topic in a future post with your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading!

How to Learn to Code

He is credentialed for this shiz.

Morning Email: Check In Without Checking Out

If you’ve ever worked in a position where regular communication via email is important, you know what I’m about to discuss.

We’re all guilty of it. It’s 8:00 AM. You’ve sat down at your desk, your computer is warming up for the day. You open your email application and BOOM, there’s a metric butt load of emails waiting for you, nay pining for you, nay downright stabbing each other for your attention. The red bangs, the forty replies from a large group, the attachments, oh God the attachments!

I came across a great article by Chris Guillebeau this afternoon about how he finds a way to check his email every morning, but doesn’t let it consume him. How could this be? Only wizards hold such power as to deflect the mind-controlling gaze of a full inbox.

Nah.

I check email every morning—not always “first thing” but usually pretty early. I take a quick scan, delete or archive anything irrelevant, and send any urgent replies. This quick scan takes an average of 10-15 minutes on average. [emphasis mine]

Quick scan. That’s the key. Unless its from HR telling you your giant raise came through or your boss telling you your giant pay cut came through, it can probably wait.

Guillebeau goes on to talk about the post-email-check session. After checking his email, he starts work. Real work. Stuff he actually has to get done. Those emails are just sitting there, and that’s perfectly okay.

Let’s not jump to conclusions, though. It’s fine to come back to emailing every now and then, but don’t let it become a distraction.

Sit down and complete a full task before checking email again.

I do this on a regular basis. It irritated former co-workers who were still stuck in 1999 and email seemed to be the only way to get a hold of me, never mind that IM, text, phone calls, or God forbid, a desk visit were also viable options.

Did you get my email? – Every co-worker who uses email as an excuse to start a conversation about said email’s topic.

I want to take Chris’ ideas one step further, though. I think it’s important to set clear boundaries. Establish yourself as that guy in the office who will:

Address every message at some point throughout the day.

Between X and Y hours, you will review all messages as necessary. Between those times of your choosing, you’re doing other stuff. Feel free to even close your email program. It’ll all still be there. Trust me.

Speak with you in the appropriate manner regarding a message or multiple messages.

If you receive a group mail about donuts in the kitchen, promptly punch the sender with a donut.

(in your mind. Assault is assault, people.)

Tell you to “see me” if it’s really that damn important.

You’re in the same work area, Bob, for crying out loud.

Promptly turn you away if you’re coming to talk about an email you just sent.

If you were going to come talk to me, why did you bother sending the email? “For your records” is a lame excuse. Stop it. I’ll come see you if it’s warranted.

That’s how I survive my day. My last job involved a lot of this. I received roughly 20,000 emails a calendar year. Anything short of extreme distance from the Inbox from Hell resulted in a mental breakdown.

Choosing Your Words

We spend a great deal of time communicating via text. Some would argue we communicate more now than ever before as a society, albeit a smaller percentage via speech. This is likely due to the proliferation of text-based communication methods like email, text messages, Skype, etc.

Granted, before email we wrote letters or talked on the phone. The problem with letter writing is that its not efficient for long conversations. We resorted to the phone for such things but even then a successful phone call required two people to be in the right place at the right time.

With today’s digital communication, we can say what we want instantly to another person.

There’s a downside to all this, however, and I think Mark Twain made a good point well before digital communication was ever a thing:

The difference between the almost right word and the right work is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. ~ Mark Twain

Twain’s statement can be conveyed in two ways: the way related to writing and being descriptive in said writing, likely for a book or short story, and the way related to making sure you mean what you say and say only what you mean.

Because we have such instant access to communication, it’s easier than ever to say things without really meaning them. One can be incredibly hurtful and do real damage with little effort. It’s easy to “fly off the handle” at someone via text message because there isn’t a physical barrier preventing those words from instantly reaching someone. In the letter-writing or even telegraph days, one had to think about what they were saying before and during the writing phase. They then had to take that letter or telegraph somewhere to have it sent.

All this extra time serves as a good buffer period. With text messages, however, the moment one becomes upset at another, it takes two seconds to convey that anger and not give it a second thought.

This is where we as a society are lacking. We’ve developed ways of near-instantaneous communications with one another tens, hundreds, and thousands of miles away with next to no cost, but we’ve regressed sharply when it comes to what we say and how we say it. We see politicians “walking back” statements they make, we see hateful things written about others on Twitter and Facebook, we Snapchat our friends pictures that weren’t meant to be shared without a second thought.

One can’t help but wonder what Mark Twain would say if he saw how careless we as a people have become when choosing our words.

Johnathan Lyman
Kenmore, WA,
United States
 
blogging, design, technology, software, development, gaming, photography