Stop cursing 2016 and go make something great

I see a lot of people on social media cursing 2016 for taking some of our greatest creative minds. A lot of one-of-a-kinds died this year.

To name a smattering, in no particular order: David Bowie, John Glenn, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harper Lee, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Florence Henderson, Fidel Castro, Gene Wilder, Arnold Palmer, Gwen Ifill, Leon Russell, Janet Reno, Fyvush Finkel, Merle Haggard, Elie Wiesel, Garry Shandling ... it was a long list and then George Michael died on Christmas.

It may seem like the universe is taking something from us. It's not.

The universe is saying, "You see how much these people have done? They get to rest now. Go create something amazing for yourself."

Heed the call.

Hey, we're about to flip the calendar page. There's no reason not to go for it in 2017. Onward!

Regressing toward a higher mean, or, there’s room for everyone to be great

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There's a phenomenon in statistics called regression toward the mean. You can read a good explanation of it here, but the short version goes like this:

(1) Give people a test (say, driving a golf ball, but don't worry, this isn't going to be a sports post), then plot the results. You'll notice that there are some outliers (those with really long drives and those with really short drives), but most of them will cluster around a mean, or average.

(2) Add a new variable to all of them that you'd expect will change their drive. An example might be a golf lesson (which you'd expect to increase the drive distance) or wrist weights (which you'd expect would decrease the drive distance).

(3) Test them again, and plot the results. You'll find that there are still outliers and a cluster around a mean. The mean may be different, but there's still a mean and there are still roughly the same number of people clustered around it.

Got it?

OK, cool. Now, let's look at life.

Can we all agree there are outliers? We might have different measures and have different tastes, but I'm going to suggest as success measures not having trouble paying your bills, generally enjoying what you do, and not worrying about what other people think.

I'm going to suggest the "positive" outliers — people who are "winning" at life, if you will — are people like Richard Branson, Joe Rogan and Kim Kardashian. They all seem to be pretty happy folks with successful business ventures (look, I'm a fan of one of the three of them and I did absolutely no research).

Then there are "negative" outliers — people who maybe aren't doing so well. People who are homeless, hungry and unhappy about it, maybe. (Yes, I realize it's a very American-centric view of things, can we move on, please?)

Then there's some line that is the average of those people.

Depending on how you measure things, now you have people clustered around that line. We're going to stick with the generally subjective items I seem to have come up with here.

There are people who have no trouble paying their bills, have a generally satisfying family life but hate their jobs. Or people who are wealthy but alone and miserable. Or people who like their jobs and like their home lives but are just scraping by, sometimes eating just rice for a couple days at the end of the month to keep the heat on.

When you add up their "scores," they wind up somewhere in the middle, give or take.

This is regression toward the mean.

Now, let's add some measure of happiness to everybody. I don't know, maybe one day each week, every person gets some sort of dopamine release that launches them into absolute bliss for 16 hours. Or maybe everybody always gets all the sleep they need every night.

There are still outliers now, but everyone's happiness went up. Most people are still clustered around a mean, just the mean is higher than it was before we added our new thing.

Still with me? Good, because this is where it gets important.

We're all making this up as we go along, trying to get a little bit better, day by day. Some of us have figured out some things. Some of us have figured out other things. Some of us haven't figured out anything.

But we can all get better. The top outliers can become better, the bottom outliers can become better, and everyone who regressed toward the mean can get better — it just gives us a higher mean. The distribution remains the same, but we're raising the mean.

Let's make up numbers. Let's say the outliers at the top are 90 and the outliers at the bottom are 10 and the mean is 50. What if we bump the top outliers to 100 and the bottom to 20 and the mean to 60? Everybody got better. What if we bump the top outliers to 200 and the bottom to 120 and the mean to 160?

Same distribution, but the mean is higher.

Here's the point: Nobody has to get worse for you to get better. There's room for everyone to improve, for everyone to rise, and it doesn't detract from your ability to also rise.

So lift people up, don't put them down. As you rise, bring people with you. It'll be easier at the top if you have people around you.

Lessons in leadership from Jocko Willink: Extreme Ownership and beyond

"Don't count on motivation. Count on discipline," Jocko Willink says on an audience Q&A episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast.

Willink is a retired Navy Seal and co-author with retired Seal Leif Babin of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. The two are partners in a corporate leadership consulting firm called Echelon Front (NOTE: auto-play audio, safe for work).

I first came to know of Willink on an interview-style podcast he did with Ferriss; Joe Rogan learned so much from that episode that he had Willink on his show soon after.

I know that lately with my non-fiction book reviews, I've been primarily listing the notes I took. But I took six pages of notes on this one. I'd be doing both you and Extreme Ownership a disservice if that's how I approached this.

What I'm going to do first is recommend the book. It's a quick read (I read it in three sittings, despite taking six pages of notes), it's really interesting and it's immensely practical.

In each chapter, Babin or Willink (they each wrote half the chapters) begins with a combat story. They set the stage, discuss the mission, how it was designed and executed, what went right and wrong, and discuss the principles at play. Then, in a short section, they more clearly define the principle. Finally, the chapter concludes with the principle at play in a business setting — using an example from a business their company has actually worked with.

The combat stories are interesting to me as someone who has never been in combat; I imagine they'd be interesting to someone who has served, as well. The principles are clearly defined. I've seen many of the business examples at play in companies I've worked for.

I tend to take bodies of work as a whole in my brain. These items were certainly in the book, but they also bleed into the podcasts and other writings. These are my four favorite takeaways (but again, read the book and listen for yourself). You can also scroll down to the bottom of this post for photos of my notes if you want more.

When the team understands the mission, they can better carry it out. This isn't a new idea, but it is something that leadership has long been resistant to. Jump to around 50 minutes in this Richard Feynman lecture — when the military conscripted a bunch of engineering students to punch holes in cards at Los Alamos, it was slow going. But when Feynman got clearance to tell them what they were doing and why, they went from solving three problems in nine months to solving nine problems in three months, inventing new processes and programs along the way.

Too often, the people doing the work are asked to just do the work, without any insight into the larger goal. In other words, they don't have a look at the big picture and are just checking off something on their to-do lists.

Be willing to tell your frontline workers why you want them to do something. At the very least, you give them a sense of purpose within the larger context of what you're trying to accomplish. You might get a lot more, though: you might get better ways to do things. You might get insight into other ways to accomplish your goals. You might get insight into other things you're also accomplishing without realizing it.

The more people you have invested in the goal, the more likely you are to be successful.

I think enough time has passed that I can talk a little about the time earlier this year when I thought I was going to be unemployed. I had received a month's notice that my department was to be eliminated. A little less than two weeks later, an asshole with a gun shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, and instead of waiting until 9 a.m. to post to our news sites, when I was scheduled to work, I delayed my run by half an hour to post it before 7 a.m. A few days later I got a call that the company had decided not to eliminate my department.

I'm sure that the one action I took did not save the department. I'm sure, however, that it helped. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't understood our mission as a company and what my role in accomplishing that mission was. I don't post news to check "post news" off my to-do list, I do it because it helps us achieve our goals. If I didn't understand that, I might have just waited until it was time for me to clock in.

Departments within the same company need to find a way to work together without blaming each other for shortcomings. I've encountered this problem in every company I've ever worked for. Some of those companies have been hugely successful. Some have failed.

In every case, the problem has been communication. Specifically, a failure to communicate a reminder that different departments are not competing, trying to keep each other down. We are working toward the same goal. It seems sometimes like Department A is trying to sabotage Department B. In all likelihood, it really is that Department B has never told Department A what the problem is how Department A could better help Department B — and conversely, ask if there's a way for Department B to help solve the problem, with different communication or other practices.

Leadership works in two directions within the chain of command: Down and up. Leadership is a personality trait more often than it is a function of title. If you have a leader among the rank-and-file, you'll want to make sure you listen, even if you're a great leader. A higher rank is not always an indicator of the best idea for every situation.

In about 4 of every 5 shifts I work, I have rank. I'm good at a lot of things. Sadly, delegation is not one of them, but I'm working on that. One of the things I have definitely gotten better at, though, is recognizing strengths in others and either leaning on them for the things they're strong at, or asking them to teach me those things.

If you want to change the way things are done, pick your battles and earn the right to be heard. This is hugely important in every organization, not just companies. Every organization has its faults, and many of them are operational. "That's the way we've always done it" is a common answer for why things are done the way they are. That doesn't mean it's a good answer.

When you see something that could be done better, it makes sense to speak up. But first, you must show you understand the mission: why you're doing the thing you're doing and why it's been done that way for so long. You must be a voracious worker — someone who has earned the trust of those who have the power to change things before you'll really be heard up the chain of command.

And if you make noise on one thing, you might not get heard on something else, so pick your battles. You don't want to be seen as a complainer, someone who just hates all the processes. At some point, you'll just be the boy who cried wolf.

***

Willink also has his own podcast. I personally don't enjoy it: his delivery is very dry even if the information is interesting; it's not for me. I know other people who enjoy it.

Photos of my notes: Pages 1-2 | Pages 3-4 | Pages 5-6

Political disclaimer: Willink and Babin are both veterans. They served their country with honor. They support the missions given them. They also follow Department of Defense guidelines n the way they write about war, soldiers and the U.S. mission. You do not need to agree with them to get a lot of their work. You do, however, need to be willing to look past your own prejudices, whether you agree with them or not. Either way, I don't believe either of them is guilty of blind boosterism.

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Holy crap, we’re an amazing species

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The photo at the top of this post was taken with a cell phone on a plane while I was listening to Tchaikovsky on Sirius XM through headphones.

Can we break all of this down for a minute?

First off, I'm sitting in a chair in a metal tube in the sky with 150 other people. We're going 1,000 miles in under two hours. What a giant fuck you to gravity — and pretty much everything else we thought we knew 125 years ago.

125 years. Seriously. Your grandfather's grandfather was an adult already. That's a blink ago.

While sitting on this plane, I've got headphones in. There's sound coming through these little wired pods in my ears that only I can hear. Specifically, it is an orchestral recording that has been committed to some digital medium and sent from earth to space and then bounced back to me moving 500 mph through the sky in a metal tube.

An orchestral recording? That's 100 different people sending sound through instruments we built and shaped to make sounds. All the sounds are coordinated because we came up with this language drawn in symbols we could all agree on that say, "On this instrument, play this sound for this long." And one person put all those instructions down on paper and someone else is standing up and reading it and leading a whole bunch of other people who are reading it to make sure everyone's in the same place.

At the same time, the sound is traveling into some sort of device that captures that sound and can reproduce it in a format that is readable by other devices, including the one that can send it into space for me to hear.

Cripes.

Now, can we look at the stuff in the photo?

I don't even know where to start. Maybe with the book? It's full of words. Printed words. We not only agreed on sounds that mean something, we drew symbols to represent those sounds. Then we figured out how to pulp wood to make paper, have some ink and a press to permanently impress the symbols onto the paper, bind them together, and reproduce that a whole bunch of times.

We then took that ink, created a container that can leak just a little bit, in a controlled manner when in contact with a solid surface, and put the ink inside.

Now look a little to the left. We got more ink to stay on that napkin, which is a different version of the reconstituted pulped wood. The cup is yet another version of reconstituted pulped wood, also with some ink, and it's full of hot coffee — a drink that is amazing in itself. We took this berry, got the seed out, roasted the seed and steeped it in hot water. And we managed to get it hot in a metal tube in the sky.

If you can look at everything around you and not be AMAZED at our ingenuity, you might need a perception adjustment.

Unity of vision

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The rabbis tell the story of a student of the seer of Lublin, a wise and religious man.

The student decided that in order to be closer to God, he would fast (no food or water) from the end of one Sabbath (Saturday at sundown) to the beginning of the next (Friday at sundown).

As the next Sabbath approached, the student was very thirsty, and, as he walked to his teacher's house to welcome the Sabbath, he passed a well. He stopped at the well, and then told himself, "If I have a drink of water now, I will have wasted the rest of the week." He walked away without a drink.

As he continued his journey, the student felt proud of himself, and recognizing the sin of pride, rushed back to the well, saying, "better I should fail in my fast than to feel pride." When he got back to the well, however, he was no longer thirsty, and continued on to his teacher's house without taking a drink.

When he arrived, the seer admonished him for his patchwork approach to getting closer to God. "You should go into your fast with unity of soul."

This translates so well into our want-to-do-everything world. Beyond #FOMO ("fear of missing out"), we have a problem wherein we want to be seen as so many different things — indeed to do so many different things.

It's fine to do a lot, but do it with unity of vision. Do it with a sense of purpose. Do everything with an eye toward being your best you. And if something is leading you away from that path, stop doing it. Now.

Want to know if you're on the right track here? Open your calendar. What did you do last week? The week before? What's there for the next week? How about the week after? Ask why about everything that's on there. Can you come up with an answer that makes sense to you? If not, maybe consider reconfiguring your calendar a little.

Start saying no to stuff that you feel like you have to do but that don't suit your purpose. Be one with you.

Oh, and have a great day.

Lessons in working hard and reining it in from Bert Kreischer and Robert Kelly

Sometimes I listen to a podcast with the expectation that it's going to be really fun, and instead of laughing a lot, I find myself saying, oh no, now I need to listen to this again with pen and paper nearby.

Comedian Robert Kelly was on Bertcast — the podcast of comic and Travel Channel personality Bert Kreischer — and it really turned into something you need to hear.

Here are my takeaways from the episode:
• Help your friends out, but also hold them accountable
• Know the things you want and need to be your best — and demand them
• Learn how to cut off the fat
• Learn how to say no
• Don't say anything you can't take back (Kelly is sometimes on Comedy Central's "Roast Battle," a show on which the point is to make fun of other comics; the lesson here is some things are off-limits — know how you can tease people, but know what's too far)
• Spontaneity isn't always good
• Don't put in the work if the payoff isn't there
Hard work is hard
• We are in a period of excellence and variety
• Don't let emotion get the better of you
• What is your peak? Are you willing to keep going on the other side of it?
Sometimes it's worth the risk
• It's worth doing exactly what you want, but do it for you, and do it your way
• You don't know where it's going, but it's definitely not going anywhere if you don't do it to your expectations
• Not everybody is going to be a rock star
• Have measured expectations
• Be realistic about where you are
Try to be better
• Do what you do; you ever where it's going to get you
• Don't let expectations weigh you down
• In a saturated market, how do you stand out?
• You're worth what you're worth. If you get $X and someone's only offering $y, you can still love them honestly but say no
• Don't jump in a big pond just to be a small fish. Kelly's actual quote: "Why do I want to be the pepper in your chop suet? People want chop suet; they don't care what's in it."
• It's up to you if you stay or go – not the audience, not your mother, not anyone else
• Bring people with you

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Small decisions are the difference between good enough and great

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I was running south down Drayton Street, along Forsyth Park, on yet another high-heat, high-humidity day in Savannah.

It seems like every time I've looked down at my phone's weather application the past two months, it says something on the order of "92°, feels like 109°."

I'd been frustrated by my inability — really, lack of true desire — to push past two or three miles (I'd been running two or three times a day sometimes to get some time in on the pavement).

That particular day, I had set out to run five miles, and here I was, about 2.25 miles in, drenched, sagging and miserable. Up ahead about a quarter mile — well within my view — was a corner.

I could turn left, and get home in about a mile, or I could turn right and keep going. I could go home, get comfortable and tell myself I was going back out later, or I could push myself through.

Let me note here that in general, five miles is not a stretch for me. I'll run my second half marathon this fall, and I've set a running goal of 1,000 miles this year.

At 10 minutes per mile, a quarter mile is two minutes, 30 seconds. That's not a long time if, say, you're driving to Baltimore. But just sit there and count off two and a half minutes. Go ahead. Bet you last about 15 seconds and say, "OK, I get the point."

Two and a half minutes of norepinephrine nudging me to the left, saying, "hey, three-plus miles on a really hot day isn't all that bad!" And a piece of my brain, feebly frying in the July heat, meekly responding, "no...I'm...running...five...today."

Kelvin and I did a podcast on this yesterday.

It's these bouts of internal arguments that make the difference between settling for good enough and going for great.

It's these little corners — turn left or turn right — that make the difference between the comfortable status quo the uncomfortable moments required for growth.

It's these decisions you make — be good enough or turn toward greatness — that define who you become.

I ran a touch over 5.6 miles that day. Which way would you turn?

Seth Godin on decommoditizing yourself, dropping your entitlement, and the loss of head starts

I've been working my way through the 30 Days of Genius interviews on CreativeLive, and, surprise, Seth Godin's stood out to me.

If you're not familiar with Seth Godin, please go spend two days watching and reading some of his stuff. This all right here is not important; it's just talking points from this interview.

Godin's altMBA »

Chase Jarvis, photographer and founder of CreativeLive, interviews Godin. Here are some of the points I think are important.

• There is no secret; there is no right answer.
• Genius is an ancient term for the voice in your head. No one's a genius, we all have a genius.
• Fear is hard-wired into us, but sometimes it's just wrong — a presentation at work is nothing like the Spanish Inquisition, even though we have the same reaction to it.
• Most people are talented. If you're doing banal work, you're afraid to use your talent.
• Overwhelm a platform with generosity. If you stay off the ship because you're worried about a wreck, you're still off the ship when it's successful.
• We live in a world right now where we don't need to be picked — by an employer, by a publisher, etc.

Jarvis: I love that your prescriptions are so simple.
Seth: But hard to do.

• Are you just doing something to get more famous? If so, why? If you couldn't see your numbers, would you still do it? For example, are you only trying to grow your Twitter followers because you can see the number of Twitter followers you have?
• We're living in the most crowded creative time ever. You're not entitled to attention or leverage, but you can earn it.
• Build art that doesn't work unless you share it. The first guy who had a fax machine couldn't do anything with it until someone else had a fax machine.
• Anything worth doing is worth doing because you changed someone else. If we don't make a change happen, what did we do? Sharing will happen naturally when you change someone. "The Laramie Project" was a play about gay rights, and you and I have heard of it because it changed the people who saw it and they wanted to share it.
• Our public education system isn't designed to create innovation. It was started by industrialists to grow a workforce with similar education who is trained to sit at a desk all day, and hasn't changed since. We have summers off because we needed time to pick crops.
• [To work around the problems of public education]: Parents need to tell kids that straight A's aren't the point. Ask, "What problem have you solved today?" Kids have to answer that before they're allowed to do their homework.
• If you can't buy into "it might not work," you have to trick yourself into it.
• Have a practice. If you go in for surgery, you want the surgeon to do things the same way every time. Similarly, when it comes to daily practices, there's no one practice that's demonstrably better than another, but having a practice is important.
• Now that the world has changed, don't get frustrated. If you want to be treated like a non-commodity, don't act like a commodity.
• Take responsibility for what you do. It's not your boss's fault, not your parents' fault.
• Don't do great things tomorrow, do them today.

Reminder: Own your job, and you’re entitled to work hard


"Hard work is just preparation for a lucky day," Sir Mix-a-Lot tells Chase Jarvis

I was supposed to be unemployed today.

Long story, but I went over it in the bonus material of Episode 11 of the podcast (bonus material available with a donation at Patreon).

Short version: I had the opportunity to mail it in, but I didn't. I remembered something I wrote some 4.5 years ago. Someone was paying me money, and they deserved my best.

I'm going to leave this bit right here about how you're entitled to work hard, but not to much else in this life. Deal with it.

The ongoing fear of success

I was pretty smart four years ago when I asked, "how do you plan for success?"

I'm dumber now, I guess, because I just read that piece and learned something from it.

Maybe I'm not dumber. Maybe I just needed a reminder. Clearly I haven't spent the four years learning the entire lesson.

I was reminded of problem of fearing success when Joey Diaz had Matt Baker on his podcast last week.

Diaz, the actor and comedian, and Baker, a second-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, are on the mic with producer Lee Syatt. They're talking about Diaz getting into comedy, and about his fear of getting onstage.

Scroll ahead to 34:19 if you want to hear this exchange; go before that if you want context.

Syatt: Were you worried you were going to bomb? Is that what you were most worried about? Or were you worried that you were going to do well?

Diaz: I was worried I was going to find the answer to all my problems.

"I was worried I was going to find the answer to all my problems."

What are you not doing because you're worried it will eliminate your ability to complain about anything?