Can we talk equality for a minute?

I get ambivalent about participating in Blog Action Day most years, because, while I always think it's relevant to the world, the topic isn't typically something I'm passionate about.

But I can say something about equality. It's a topic I've given up on more than once. On the one hand, the fact that you bleed red, I bleed red, whatever, is obvious to me. On the other hand, you just can't change some people's minds.

inequalitywordcloud-smThere's so much to talk about, overall. Some of what's going on in the world...

Gay marriage
I can't believe we're even still talking about this. Sanctity of marriage? You know what's bad for the sanctity of marriage? Domestic violence. You know what else? Divorce. You know what the rates are among gay couples? I don't either, but I'm betting in both cases, it's substantially lower than straight couples. Look, you have a religious issue? No problem. We have a separation of church and state in this country. How about we just allow marriage to be a church institution, and call the legal bit a civil partnership?

Sexism
Here's another one I can't believe we're still talking about, but sadly, we are. Women on the whole still make less than men for the same work. Women are still notably absent from positions of power. And while there are a growing number of associations to help support female business owners, we still need associations to help support female business owners.

Look, 50.8 percent of the U.S. is female, we should be seeing something like that in terms of female leadership in corporate America and the like. Don't give me anecdotal evidence as "proof" that we're making progress. The fact is, we're really not.

Racism and white privilege
"People think Dr. King gave his speech and racism was over," Chris Rock tells Ice T, continuing on to say that white folks didn't even really start to watch what they said in public until 1978 or so.

Look, there is never going to be a time when we don't look at "other than me" suspiciously. It's hard-wired into us, and it's the same mechanism that keeps us glued to news about murders and robberies even though our mouths say we want to hear good news instead. But we have the ability to make our actions pair with our beliefs (or what we claim as beliefs), and treat everybody with respect.

I'm sure that many of you have read the essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, but if not, take 10 minutes to do so, and, particularly if you're white and haven't thought about it before, do think.

Class
I struggle with this more than any other, I think. I grew up in what I think is what is called a high-diversity school system. While I've never spent much time in "up-and-coming" neighborhoods (that means a place where housing is dirt cheap and you may not want your kids out after dusk), I find higher-end suburbs uncomfortable as well.

I've never had to live eight to a home, but there were times my parents worked multiple jobs.

I also happen to think a lot of racism is tied up in poverty, making it really a class issue.

If you need your eyes opened to class inequality in the U.S., listen to Ms. Pat school Marc Maron. Maron's reaction is of genuine surprise.

If you need your eyes opened to class inequality across the globe, check out Kevin Rose's interview with Scott Harrison. Harrison was one of those guys companies used to pay just to be seen in public drinking their products, and then he went on a trip and discovered there are children in this world dying horrible deaths because they can't get clean water. And then you can go give to Charity Water because you will totally feel like a selfish ass after you hear it.

Religion
While Christmas generally makes me uncomfortable (though I don't begrudge anybody their holiday), I'm becoming a little better with ritual.

But we still live in a world where we're killing in the name of (insert whatever you call the deity here). All the time. It's been that way throughout recorded human history.

And in a world where even the NFL has to reclassify its player fines because someone in the organization doesn't understand religious expression if it's not their religious expression.

Come on, people, rise above, eh?

Your comments are appreciated.

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If you listen to one thing this week…

I've written about Chris Guillebeau (website) and James Altucher (website) before. But this time, they got together. See Episode 46 (and then listen to it).

Rather than tell you what they say, I'll give you of the topics they hit, and my thoughts on them.

The benefits of a quest

A quest, Guillebeau and Altucher say, requires a destination (goal), includes a journey, and probably is going to take you a long time. While I have certainly set goals for myself, I can't say I've ever set a quest. I'm not sure my attention span is long enough. We'll see.

Following your gut

Sometimes your pro-con lists don't help. Sometimes the math is wrong, even if the numbers appear to add up. A lot of times, if you listen to what your gut (or the voices in your head) are telling you, they'll be right. See my post on intuition for more.

Following your calling, following your passion

Does everyone have a calling? Maybe. Does everyone have a passion? More likely. I'm not convinced your passion will always earn you a living, but you should still take the time to follow yours. It helps a lot with the next bit.

Self-inspiration/motivation

This is always hard. If it were easy, we wouldn't have self-help sections in bookstores or bestseller lists. We wouldn't have life coaches. We wouldn't have business coaches.

If you can't ever be self-motivated, though, your life is probably pretty hard. You probably work a job you hate, don't have a relationship worth getting out of bed for, and certainly don't have a 70-pound black Lab telling you to get your ass out of the chair and go outside (OK, Rufus, we're almost done here).

Baby steps

Specifically, they discuss the need, even on a 10-year project, to check something off your to-do list today and something else tomorrow. But take into consideration everything lots of parts of your life. Trying to lose weight? Lose between a tenth of a pound and two-tenths of a pound each day, you'll lose a pound a week, over 50 pounds in a year. Baby steps. Looking to save some money? Put away $2 a day, and you've saved over $700 for the year. On a 10-year quest, saving $2 a day gets you over $7,000, and that's assuming you're not picking up any interest.

Every little bit helps. There's no need to get everything done tomorrow.

I'd love to hear from you on this. They tackle some pretty big things. What are your takeaways?




 

On ritual

We said our farewells to Fritz over the weekend. I don't expect you'll go read through his obituary, so I'll give you the gist.

Fred Mills, "Father Fritz" to his flock, was a reverend, a weightlifter, a hiker, and a Red Sox fan (a die-hard fan — literally — there was a Red Sox logo on the shroud covering his coffin at calling hours).

His family relationship to me is kind of tenuous on the surface. He is my wife's first cousins' stepfather — my wife's uncle and Fritz's widow raised a couple of women. Fritz had his own children coming into that marriage as well.

While Fritz's family stayed in New England (primarily Cape Cod), he lived in Central New York, and he was always at family gatherings. I met him first in 2010, five years after the stroke that ended his power-lifting days and his ability to hike on his own two legs. The three things I remembered from that first meeting were still true when I last saw him a couple of months ago:

• He had a crushing handshake. If you weren't ready for it, you risked taping up a couple of fingers for a week. And he held on for a lot longer than is generally deemed a social norm. One of his daughters inherited that grip and the hold, and I thought to mention it when we met.
• He looked you in the eye, not in a challenging way, but in a gentle, respectful way.
• He wanted to talk baseball. It was common ground, and since I grew up a Red Sox fan in Massachusetts, it was a good way for us to connect.

His funeral was at an Episcopal church. I don't really understand the inner workings, but strictly from a standpoint of observation, it's almost Anglican (Church of England), I guess. They take communion (so it's in a Catholic tradition), but priests can marry, they have female priests, and I didn't see any crucifixes (a cross being a cross, a crucifix having a crucified Jesus on the cross).

There were some rituals that were curious to me, an outsider (I'm Jewish). One was something they called in the program The Peace. It's a stopping point in the service during which you look around and wish those around you peace. The priest later explained the communion ritual (which I'm guessing changes a bit from church to church), but it was almost another half hour before the communion ceremony. Some of the readings began and ended with the priest elevating the bible above her head and making a declaration.

As I mentioned, these were curious to me, but they probably felt perfectly normal to someone else.

As some of you know, I'm a Freemason. One of the things that connects the fraternity to its past is its ritual, which can vary from place to place, but remains integral to every meeting and every degree ceremony.

The ritual is certainly unusual to an outsider, and was to me when I first saw it, but is now a mark of comfort that, no matter what else happens before, during or after the meeting, the meeting will open and close with ritual.

It's the same in many other organizations, including religious gatherings, fraternities, business, etc. People look to ritual to emulate others — do a search for morning ritual or rituals of successful people, and you'll get millions of options, some of them downright scary (like, say, Hunter S. Thompson's daily routine.

Watch some baseball players as they step up to bat. Some of them have elaborate rituals before they get in the batter's box, including touching different parts of their bodies, adjusting their uniforms or batting gloves, touching the bat to a specific point on home plate, etc.

Ritual guides us in practice, connects us to our past, and brings us a comfort of familiarity in unfamiliar situations.

What are your rituals?

On interviewing, or conversations: The good, the bad, the memories.

I began my career as a reporter before we started shoveling news online, so I've been interviewing a while. Actually, it's been a while, but I know a good interview from a bad interview, for sure.

One of my first professional interviews was with Tish Hinojosa. It was awful. I didn't even know how to pronounce her name. I couldn't get her to open up about anything, and it was all my fault. I'd received her most recent album the day before the interview, didn't particularly enjoy it on first listen, didn't have time to study it, and didn't know who Barbara Kingsolver was or why her writing some of the liner notes was a big deal.

Another bad interview I had was with someone whose work I really enjoy: Bruce Campbell. Now, if you know Campbell's work, you have some idea of his personality. He's warm, confident and doesn't enjoy taking crap from anyone. I was so nervous for the interview – he was on tour for If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. I'd read it twice in three days, already knew the Evil Dead trilogy by heart, and even went and checked out some of his more obscure stuff, like 1992's Mindwarp. I thought I'd impress him by referencing it. I did so by asking if he thought The Matrix had merely ripped off the concept with a higher budget. Then he gave me a list of about 15 other films Mindwarp had ripped off.

I've had some great interviews, too, and some of those were surprising. Joan Jett, who comes off really shy in person offstage, gave me 10 minutes over the phone in an airport once. It was amazing. She even let me get away with a bad question. I asked if she was tired of being known primarily for one song ("I Love Rock 'n' Roll"). She told me no, in fact, she could play whatever she wanted and it didn't matter how the rest of the show came off. By the end of the night, she could play that one and everyone would sing it for her and be into it.


David Clayton-Thomas [via]
David Clayton-Thomas, best known for work he did way before my time (as frontman for Blood, Sweat & Tears), wanted to talk at 7 a.m. (yes, a musician wanted to talk at 7 a.m.), and we were on the phone for two and a half hours.

The late Bill Morrissey, the amazing Pamela Means and my old friend Star Drooker said things to me that certainly impacted how I see the world.

This is not about name-dropping. Hell, it's not even about me. It's about interviewing. Maybe more accurately, it's about how to have a conversation.

You might know Biz Markie from 1989's "Just a Friend." You might know him from the scene in Men in Black II when he beat-boxes in the back room of a post office. If you have kids, you might know him from Nick Jr.'s "Yo Gabba Gabba."

James Altucher, who does one of my favorite podcasts, interviewed Markie recently (see episode 35). And it was awful. So bad, in fact, that the podcast wasn't the straight interview. Altucher ran a commentary track, stopping every time he had a criticism.

Now, Altucher had done his research. He knew a lot about his subject. But it took a while to let his subject know that. It was really, really awkward. Sometimes, when it's like pulling teeth to get an interview, it's time to give up on the interview.

Altucher wrote a post about what he learned from that interview.

On the other side of the spectrum is comedian Marc Maron, who's had one of the top-rated podcasts on iTunes for years. It's called WTF, and, apart from having amazing guests, features amazing interviews, even the ones he's really nervous about doing. They all turn into good conversations that flow easily between topics and across timelines. Some of my favorites include his interviews with the likes of Roseanne Cash (No. 511), Bob Newhart (No. 523), Shepard Fairy (No. 497) and Lewis Black (No. 485).

I came to his podcast late – there are dozens of interviews I'll probably spring for the premium app to hear. Go give them a listen; the last 50 are always free.

That brings us to this: What makes a good interview? Does it take a professional? Does it take practice? Does it take research?

No, it doesn't take a professional. It definitely takes some practice. A little research is not a bad thing, but is entirely unnecessary if your subject is patient.

A good interview winds up being a conversation. And you can have a conversation that essentially turns into an interview. And if you've never heard of your subject, or conversation partner, just ask the pertinent questions without appearing nosy or pushy.

Have an idea of points you'd like to hit along the way, but be as open about yourself as you want your subject to be about himself or herself. It should feel natural after the initial discomfort of meeting a new person.

Go try it on a friend, then a stranger, then someone famous. Good luck!

Share your input

Like last week, I'm going to share a little something I learned on one of James Altucher's podcasts. [See my favorite podcasts]

Altucher spoke with Austin Kleon, who, among other things, creates poetry by blacking out large chunks of newspaper articles, leaving only the words that form his works. It has both a written and visual element, and includes some of the built-in commentary that nothing is truly new, it's just a reorganization of something that exists.

Kleon said two things on that podcast that I found interesting.

One was that when we make something, we should record the process, because the process is also of interest to people.

This, of course, is not new. There have been "the making of..." documentaries on movies and TV shows for decades now. But it might be something a lot of solo or small-group creators don't think about. In addition to selling your finished product, you can sell a thing (book, DVD, whatever) about how you made the product.

The other thing was this. When using social media, you don't have to share your output every day, but you should share your input. That is, you may not want to tell people what you're working on that day, but tell people what you consumed – if you're learning from it, let someone else learn from it, as well.

I'm doing more listening than reading these days, most of it to the podcasts I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and I'm trying out some silence at times of the day when I normally wouldn't have silence.

I'm also re-reading The Four-Hour Workweek; it makes a lot more sense to me than it used to.

What's your input look like these days?

Podcasts I’m listening to

Note: Updated 12 Aug. 2014 with Marc Maron's WTF.

One of my new favorite things is listening to podcasts. Better than listening to music for taking my mind off the pounding I give my knees on a run and requiring less attention than audiobooks, I'm picking up useful information and being entertained.

These are some of my favorites right now. Please share yours; I'm just getting into them, so I'd love some recommendations.

The Tim Ferriss Show. You know Tim Ferriss from the 4-Hour series (work week, body, chef) and maybe from his television show, which I haven't seen. His podcast is new (as of this writing, there are three episodes; there might be a fourth by the time this publishes), and very entertaining. Life-hacking, entrepreneurship, self-experimentation, meditation and more are subjects discussed in long-form entertaining interviews over copious amounts of wine (seriously, I think episode 3 is almost a constant pour over two hours). On Twitter: @tferriss

The James Altucher Show. I'm a big fan of Altucher's books (Choose Yourself! and others), his writing, and his weekly Twitter Q&A. I waited a little while to start listening to his podcast (he announced it in January), but I'm glad I did. He has some great guests, and his shows are generally a much more manageable length (35-60 minutes) than Ferriss's, if that's an issue for you. On Twitter: @jaltucher

Brew/Drink/Run. This is exactly what it sounds like. Home brewing beer, drinking craft beer, and running. They brew at all levels, from starter kits to complicated all-grain recipes. They run at all levels, from an endurance athlete to people who struggle to get a mile in some days, and they review beers that aren't your average Miller Lite. It's a very entertaining crew, and you might pick up a little something here and there. On Twitter: @BrewDrinkRun

Foundation. This is a podcast by Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg and the guy who decides which startups Google Ventures writes big checks to. He has some wildly interesting people on the podcast, talking about entrepreneurship. There aren't a lot of people giving away content who are having conversations with Elon Musk and David Copperfield. Take advantage of it. On Twitter: @KevinRose

Snap Judgment and The Moth. I put these two together because they have similar offerings. You can hear both on NPR stations across the country, and both feature storytellers, often in a performance environment. Snap does some long-form feature reporting as well. I don't know that there's much crossover in terms of people who tell stories, but I'd suggest giving them both a listen. On Twitter: @SnapJudgment and @TheMoth

Addendum: WTF with Marc Maron. Holy crap. Mark Maron is a comedian I never heard of until recently, and he's had one of the top-rated podcasts on iTunes for a few years now. He's 500-something episodes in, releases two or three a week, and has amazing guests. Like Robin Williams (2010), Claire Danes (there was mutual fandom there) and Bob Newhart. Maron was part of the crash-and-burn standup crowd, coming up with Sam Kinison and doing too many drugs and drinking too much. He has a show on IFC ("Maron"), still tours, and, in addition to his interviews, speaks to his audience about his life – his neuroses, his health, his relationships, what have you. He's incredibly relatable, and every interview is a conversation with what seems like an old friend.

Looking at Franklin’s virtues

Frustrated with the dogmatic bent of the Presbyterian Church — which always seemed to him to be looking for more Presbyterians instead of making good people out of the Presbyterians it had — Benjamin Franklin sought to define the most important virtues in life for himself outside the boundaries of Church language, and he did so with the idea in mind that the Church's virtues were few with wide definitions, so he wrote more, with more narrow definitions.

From his autobiography, Franklin's 13 virtues (with his explanations) are (in the spelling of his time):

1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

I've written about moderation before. It's one of the hardest things to achieve in our world as it is, I think. Even now, while I'm concentrating on writing, I have the television on and eight browser tabs open, with my tablet to the right of my laptop and my phone to the left.

I've also written about quiet and needing to shut up once in a while. Every now and again I get drawn into a stupid discussion, but for the most part, in both real life and online, I'm getting much better about not saying anything unless I have something to add to a discussion. I won't raise my voice to be heard, so if I do have something to contribute but the conversation isn't civil or at a normal tone, I keep out of it.

Basically, I think Franklin got it right. Be good to people, live as simply and as calmly as you can. It's interesting that he paired Jesus and Socrates as representatives of humility. I believe it's clear that it has nothing to do with Jesus's divinity if he's paired with a very early scientist.

What do you think are good rules for life?

Simplifying: A lesson in beauty from The Art of War

Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been a manual for field battle, and, for not quite as long, a manual for management in the business world and even sales. But reading it recently, this is what stood out to me:

7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted

We have, of course, found notes beyond the pentatonic (though not many), and now understand white and black not as primary colors but as, respectively, the combination of all colors and the absence of all color.

But take this point to heart. All of the wonderful variety in life can be drilled down to a few basic attributes. When these simple attributes are combined in various ratios, we get all the beauty in the world. Start with small pieces, and let it grow.

Three things you can read every week to get smarter in 2014

I read a lot. Most of the stuff I read is absolute crap, but I read it because I'm hoping it will teach me something. But no longer. I spent 2013 consuming as many words as I could, and I figured out that there are three things I could read every week that will make me smarter.

That's not to say I don't think there are other useful newsletters out there, and that I'll stop reading books and features and news and such. I'm just going to be more picky – a little more selfish with my time.

These are the three things that I read every week, that I think you should, as well.

1. James Altucher's weekly Twitter chat. James Altucher has done a few things right in his life, and a lot of things wrong. The things he's gotten right vastly outweigh the others, though, and I think he's a really smart guy (I recommend his book, Choose Yourself!, as well). He hosts an "ask me anything" Twitter chat Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern. During that hour, tweet him at @jaltucher and he'll respond.

I tend to go to his Twitter page and refresh every few minutes so that I can monitor the answers, and then I have the option to check out the question if I wish. If you can't catch it live, you can always head to his page later and scroll back through. You get not only his collected wisdom, but also you get to read what people are asking about, which might give you some ideas as well.

I think you can get just as much from lurking here as you could participating.

2. Mitch Joel, Alistair Croll and Hugh McGuire's weekly link exchange. Each week, three entrepreneurs collect one link for each of the other two, resulting in a blog post every Saturday on Mitch Joel's blog titled Six Links Worthy of Your Attention. Some weeks you'll find more interesting than others, but that will come down entirely due to personal preference. Give yourself a little time; it's worth at least reading all the explanations, and if you wind up clicking something, you might be in for 15-20 minutes of reading or watching.

The links run the gamut from entrepreneurship to education to space exploration to music, sculpture and everything else.

3. Brain Pickings weekly. Maria Popova writes long-form blog items that are really, really interesting. She writes on writing, habits, music, language, science and a variety of other topics, and she always has interesting take-aways from people who know their fields and have names like Einstein, Fitzgerald and Sontag (that is, names you've heard).

Each Sunday, she sends out a newsletter that can help you through your first pot and a half of coffee (you can't tell me I'm the only one, especially on Sunday morning).

Other newsletters I get include a daily email from Web Urbanist, which usually includes some cool photos with a little text (recent ones included a former subterranean brewery that is now a bunch of hot tubs and heated pools, and a post on large concrete arrows in the middle of the U.S. desert that appear to point nowhere but in the 1920s helped direct mail traffic by air before the use of radar), and a weekly offering from C. Hope Clark at Funds for Writers; she writes about the craft of writing, and also about marketplaces, grants and contests.

What do you read consistently that you'd like to share?

Are you willing to be challenged? Who challenges you?

We describe things with the word "comfort" when they lull us into complacence. This is not always bad, but it's not always good.

The comfort of your own space, for instance? Awesome. Your surroundings are familiar. You know the smells, where to sit, where you can be productive, how the coffee pot works. You're probably not on your toes (unless you have a Kato in your life). You can kick off your shoes and fall into whatever it is you're doing.

Comfort food? Maybe on occasion, but think about it: When you eat a big plateful of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, you're ready for a nap. Conquering the world will have to wait.

Art, for me, is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I'll dance around to a pop song, but the art I come back to over and over really challenges me. After 40 hours in the car last week, I listened to a lot of music, and I was reminded that James O'Brien's work has always challenged me. From his song "Paint":

Like God, this will demand a conversion
Strip you bare, make it say what it is you're scared of
Like God, this will certainly divide you
What you think, what you feel, what you love
So you sit and sip your coffee
You consider the blackness of your cup
You said, "Paint? I thought you were a singer.
Now all this talk of canvas and God?"

I don't know why I picked that one. It could have been anything. Don't want the music (or can't find it at this point)? Try his book on being an independent writer.

I figured, if it's the challenging stuff I come back to, I'm probably not alone. So I was surprised I got exactly one response to a tweet asking who challenges you. I mean, I'm not Superman (or Tim Ferriss), but I have enough people following my Twitter feed that I should have had more than one response.

Here is Derek Hess's work. He's got a clothing line, too. His stuff is, indeed, challenging. Great stuff.

But why did I only get one response to two askings? Are most people simply not willing to be challenged? Why not? It makes you more complete, moves you forward. I promise.

I'm going to leave you with two things. First, I know I've said it before, but read The Flinch. It's essentially the opposite of Malcolm Gladwell's classic Blink. Instead of being about the stuff that makes you make a sudden judgment, it's about breaking the snap "don't" reaction. It's free, and it's about a 2-hour commitment. Plus a little sweeping and a shower.

Also, I'm leaving you with Tom Waits's "Potter's Field." It's a bargain from the edge of a maniac's dream.


Click through to see lyrics.

Now, what challenges you? I'm looking for new stuff.