Be a failure

So here’s a question, why do we love motion so much? If motion isn’t what moves us forward, if it’s more like wasted time than productive time, how come we spend so much time on it? James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has one more helpful suggestion here, he says it’s because motion lets us feel productive without risking anything. Action necessarily involves some risk of failure, which is obviously not ideal. Failure is the worst, or at least it seems like the worst. It’s super uncomfortable, awkward, humiliating, and generally terrifying as a prospect. It makes sense that we want to avoid it.
Malcolm Gladwell has some compelling thoughts on this topic. Based on the multitude of interviews he’s conducted with entrepreneurs and successful people, he discovered that a disproportionate ratio of them are dyslexic. Research backs this up, for some reason around 35% of company founders suffer from dyslexia compared to about 15% of the broader American population. Dyslexia is thought to be a great hindrance, what about a learning disability could push people to succeed? Gladwell suggests that the main reason for this implausible statistic is the fact that those who suffer from dyslexia have become so acquainted with failure. Take school for example, grade school provides an endless arena for dyslexic children to fail from early childhood. Reading, writing, test-taking, all of it is perfectly primed to flunk a dyslexic child. So while the rest of us were earning kudos and awards for our normal learning styles, those with dyslexia were learning a much more valuable lesson, how to fail again and again and again. People with dyslexia often demonstrate proficiency with verbal communication (because writing is very difficult), comfort with delegation (because they’ve had to rely on people for help), and other very helpful characteristics of an entrepreneur in a free market society. These characteristics are grown out of a response to failure and weakness. They’re more than a natural or genetic lean, these are learned out of necessity.
Gladwell is not the only one to theorize on the value of failure, Winston Churchill stated that “success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” C.S. Lewis said “failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps most famously, said “far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Failure seems scary, but maybe it’s time for a new perspective. Failure is actually your friend. Failure means that you’re taking risks, that you’re in the game, that you’re learning. So let’s embrace failure, let’s get comfortable with it. No more playing it safe with endless motion, we’re here to act. Be a failure, and find success.

Stop Aspiring

Aspirational material is everywhere. We see headlines like ‘7 steps to shredded abs’ or ‘how I made this much $$$ working from home’ or any other exciting material promising to help you be or have something different. Aspirational material is addictive, probably because we pretty much all aspire to things. Who doesn’t want more money or a better body or a more fulfilling job? Seems pretty natural that we’d be interested in engaging with the manuals.

Simon Sinek is his Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action makes the point that all of this aspirational jargon is a type of manipulation. Here’s a helpful quote:

Though positive in nature, aspirational messages are most effective with those who lack discipline or have a nagging fear or insecurity that they don’t have the ability to achieve their dreams on their own.

By ‘effective,’ Sinek means for the company or person who creates the content, it’s not effective for the individual. Companies use aspirational messaging to sell us things, and it works. You buy a gym membership because you aspire to be healthier, and if it’s a nice gym for a great deal it’s easy to justify. An entire gym membership business model is built on these aspirations. They sell innumerable memberships, far more than the gym could actually accommodate, because they know people won’t show up. They know people aspire to be healthier making a membership an easy sell, but they also know people only aspire, they don’t want to put in the work to execute on a goal.

When we feel stuck in some part of our lives, when there’s something we would love to change about ourselves or our circumstances, we often think the problem is a lack of knowledge or motivation. If it’s knowledge, we think that either we need more knowledge or someone else needs more knowledge (probably both) in order to make progress or affect change. If it’s motivation, we think we need some sort of special inspiration in order to get us moving. Neither of those beliefs is helpful. How many aspirational blog posts do you think you’ll need to read before you’re sufficiently knowledgable and motivated to make those pounds fall off or start that passion project? If you’re anything like me, you’ve definitely put your time in with this aspirational stuff, but those hours probably haven’t paid really well. It’s fun, but it never does what we hope it will. Aspirational material is not all bad, you can find some really helpful tips and tricks buried in there, and maybe even a little motivation now and again, but it’s important to understand what that stuff can and cannot do for you. Aspirations and aspirational material can’t change you.

So here’s a little trick I picked up: stop aspiring. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set goals and make plans, in fact, goals and plans are the opposite of aspiration. An aspiration is foggy, vague, mostly unhelpful. It’s more like a wish than anything else. And it’s really easy to spend hours and hours thinking about our wishes. A goal is objective, something you can act on, something you can make a plan to achieve. If you want to do or be something different an aspiration won’t take you very far, but a plan of action could.

Consumer vs Creator

On its surface, distinguishing between consumer and creator might seem to imply that you should stop watching Netflix and start writing a blog, at least that’s what comes to my mind. That’s an incomplete picture, but I do want to think about the difference between consuming and creating, and how we can be better creators.
A consumer is someone who maximizes intakes. Watching too much TV, eating too much food, or buying too many unnecessary things could all be symptoms. At its base, it is excessive, wasteful, and unfulfilling. That’s not to say consuming is all bad. If you don’t consume food you’ll die, we’re made to consume things. But the definition of a consumer here is someone who is addicted to over-consuming, who lives to consume, and that’s generally bad. You could say the point of consuming is to take.
A creator is someone who focuses on outputs. Creating doesn’t necessarily mean writing or drawing or filming, it can be almost anything that’s contributory. When you engineer additional efficiency into a process at work, or cook a meal from a new recipe, or finish your latest house project, that’s also creating. You could say the point of creating is to give.
None of us are only a creator or only a consumer, but people do seem to shade one towards or away from the two. If you find yourself too far over to the consumer side, which is where we tend to fall by default, it can be tough to dig yourself out and start creating. But here are a couple tips to get started:

  1. Think about your purpose. What are you here for? Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? When you give those questions a good mulling over you’ll probably come up with answers that include creating. Write your answers down, set goals around them, keep reviewing them. A connection between purpose and goals, even between purpose and specific activities, is your guide. If a goal or activity doesn’t match up with your over-arching purpose you can cut it out, if it does match up, go after it. Without the clarity purpose brings, you’ll be tossed around and most likely end up settling back into comfortable consuming. The best way to start moving from consuming to creating is to know why you’re doing it.
  2. Read good books. This could technically be considered consuming, but it’s the best type of consuming, even a necessary type of consuming, in order to be able to create. If you’re not learning and growing it’s tough to have anything to share. Think about a preacher, they do lots of creating, to the tune of a 10+ page document (or two) per week. How can they possibly produce that kind of output? They read, a lot. They fill themselves up with ideas and information which they bring back to their congregations. The same is true for this blog, I wouldn’t have anything to write if I wasn’t reading. Reading should include articles and blog posts, but I specifically mention books because they’re the best way to interact with whole ideas and complete thoughts. Instead of only picking up bits and pieces of information, a book can change the way you think.
  3. Separate your consuming and creating tools. I’ve made multiple attempts to switch to an iPad only workflow in the last few years. One of the main problems I’ve run into is a confusion of purpose. My goal was to use the iPad for both creation and consumption, thereby reducing my technology loadout. It was a noble goal, but one which resulted in a lot of consuming and not much creating. For whatever reason, my mind has a hard time creating on a device that I also use for consuming, regardless of its capability or functionality (which is a whole other issue). Instead, when I use my MacBook mainly for creation (work, writing, projects, etc.), and my iPhone mainly for consumption (news, information, games, etc.), I’m much more productive.
  4. Carve out the time. This is where we often get stuck, who has the time to create things? You might have to get creative before you can create. The most important thing you can do here is to block out a chunk of time on your calendar. This time is sacred. During the block, turn off as many notifications as you can. Choose a place that will minimize distractions. I like to be somewhere other than my desk where normal working habits kick in. A coffee shop could be a nice change of pace, plus it provides a little extra motivation to commit to the time block. The point is to decide on a time and a place where you can focus. It takes some work to create a successful time-block, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable and energizing when you do it.
  5. Start small, continue daily. You don’t have to change your life to create something. Just pick one small thing and do it, today. Then do another small thing tomorrow, and then the next day. Your first time block could be 10 minutes deciding what or how you want to create. It can be directly related to your work or it could be the start of a new side hustle, as long as it involves creating. One thing I’ve committed to is writing 250 words per day. Before I set this goal for myself I had already been writing, but mostly in fits and starts, nothing consistent enough to build upon. That one small daily goal has been critical for me to remain consistent. It’s a lot easier to write 250 words per day than to write one blog post per week. Many small achievements performed consistently over time, one day at a time, will beat a big breakout effort one hundred times out of one hundred.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have this all figured out, I still spend too much time consuming, but these are a few things that I’ve learned and found helpful. Consuming is easy, let’s do something hard.

2018 Book Recommendations

I would say that reading, specifically reading books, is the single most important method of self-improvement that a person can engage in. A few years ago, in a desire to improve myself and my circumstances, I decided to read more books, and the payoff has been overwhelmingly positive. Probably the main benefit reading has imparted to me these last few years is to change the way I think. My goals and ideas and aspirations are bigger, my concept of what’s possible has grown. This change in thinking has also affected my behavior, my actions have been more consistent and more ambitious, I even waste (a little) less time with TV and on my phone. Basically, reading books can have a transformational effect. So, I want to share some of the best books I read last year (2018) in the hope you can reap some similar benefits from them. The list is broad, ranging from self-help and productivity to history to fiction and anything in between. Dig in!

The Three Laws of Performance is top shelf coaching material. Steve Zaffron delves into what actually causes transformation in people’s lives and organizations, how to really induce change. It’s not the typical rah-rah motivational material, this is real, strategic, transformative coaching. It’s also filled with real-life examples and stories, which makes it very accessible.

What’s Best Next is an incredible guide to greater personal productivity. Matt Perman is a confessed productivity junky who has gathered and distilled some of the best productivity literature available, conducted interviews with accomplished subjects, and drawn from his own experience to build his best strategies for increased effectiveness. It’s organized, well-researched, very practical, I even found it inspiring. The structure of my entire week is based on things I gleaned from What’s Best Next.

The Marks of a Spiritual Leader is not simply for pasters and Bible-study leaders. This little book is packed with practical and helpful advice for anyone in any type of leadership role. It’s clear, concise, practical, and at less than an hour total read time, it is well worth the investment.

The One Thing may be the best book on setting and achieving goals that I’ve come across. The title is a giveaway, but Keller stresses the need to determine your most important one thing and focus on that one thing tenaciously. It’s full of practical, actionable advise presented in a fun and engaging way.

Tim Keller is a leading Christian apologetic. Making Sense of God builds upon his previous popular work The Reason For God. Whether or not you’re a Christian, this inquisition into foundations and defenses of Christianity is remarkably insightful.

Reset is a type of self-help book, but instead of pushing readers to do and be more and more, David Murray encourages us to understand our limits and work within the bounds. Humans tend towards arrogance, limitations are seen as an inconvenience, but our unwillingness to acknowledge them leads to burnout. Through his concept of ‘Repair Bays,’ Murray encourages us to slow down and live consistently with reality.

I started reading Earnie Pyle during my WW2 phase in high-school. I still remember the day I finished Pyle’s Brave Menit was the most visceral, funny, and affecting account of war I had, and probably still have encountered. Ernie Pyle in England is his first collection of essays during WW2 (Brave Men is his third collection). Before the U.S. had joined the effort Pyle spent several months in England observing and reporting for an American newspaper.

In the Garden of Beasts is a look at the rise of Hitler’s regime through the eyes of the American ambassador’s family in the 1930s. It’s fascinating. Larson is a historian, but In the Garden of Beasts is not like the college history textbooks that may have put you to sleep, it reads almost like a novel, very accessible.

The Last Kingdom is the first installment of a multi-book series called The Last Kingdom Series (Cornwell just published the 11th book of the series in 2018). The genre is historical fiction, the setting is 9th and 10th century Britain, the story features protagonist Uthred of Bebbanburg fighting the Danish invasion. Cornwell is simply a great story-teller. I’ve gladly resolved to read the entire series after finishing The Last Kingdom.

I picked up The Richest Man in Babylon on a whim a few months ago. The book is a series of parables, all taking place in the context of ancient Babylon, and all dealing with a point of wisdom surrounding life and work. It’s surprisingly compelling. Clason weaves the stories around wisdom in such a unique and interesting way, and it sticks.

The Call of the Wild is an old classic that my sister encouraged me to revisit last year. Jack London’s brilliant use of language and word pictures are on full display. It’s short and profound, well worth the read.

You Need a Budget is another little gem. Jesse Mecham is the founder and CEO of YNAB, the best personal online budgeting tool out there. But the book is not a sales pitch, he digs into the nuts and bolts of building and operating a successful, zero-sum budget. This look book is packed with valuable guidance for your personal finances.

Sometimes you need to kick back and read something for the pure enjoyment of it. Ready Player One was that for me, I could hardly set it down. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s interesting, it moves quickly, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Why I switched back to physical books

For the last three years or so I have been ravenously building and reading my Kindle library. I love reading and I love iPads, and I really loved putting the two together. But, the title gives it away, I’m switching back to normal physical books. Here are some quick pros and cons to Kindle books, and why I decided to go back.

 

Pros:

  • Convenience. The fact that one portable device can store thousands of books, literally an entire library, is compelling, and super convenient. My iPad, or at least my iPhone, is always with me so the books are always available. No packing, remembering, planning, nothing. They’re all always with me.
  • Not physical. The books are electronic, which means no maintenance. I never worry about spilling coffee on a book (although that might have been worse on an iPad), ripping a page, drool from my children, or any other thing that would ruin a book. Their general well-being is never a concern, they’re always in mint condition. An iPad can obviously sustain some serious damage too, but even if my iPad was destroyed or lost, the books would still be there to download on the next device.
  • Easy to organize. The direct sync between Kindle and Goodreads is a helpful feature. My Goodreads profile and book tracking is always up to date without ever logging in to Goodreads. Kindle also uses Collections, which basically function like tags, and I love tags.

 

Cons:

  • Progress as a percentage. I found myself constantly tracking that stupid number. I’ll admit, it could be a personal problem, maybe you can ignore the numbers, but they’re pasted right on the cover of each book. I can’t stop paying attention to them. I get immersed so much more easily in a physical book.
  • It’s distracting to read on a device. The percentages are distracting, but that’s only where the distractions begin. If you’re reading on any type of tablet or phone there’s a pull to check email, look something up online, or get a quick game in. I would suddenly remember something in the middle of reading and, since a little computer was in my hands, I would just switch over to quickly take care of the thing I forgot. Even if every notification and connection setting is turned off, you still can’t turn off the capability. The counter-point to this is to use an e-reader of some sort because they don’t have all that capability. While they seem to be a great solution for many people, I have found them lacking for a few reasons. 1) They have small screens, six inches is too small. 2) The e-ink flashes every time a page turns, talk about distracting. 3) Books lose any distinguishing characteristics, even more so than in the Kindle app. 4) They’re made of plastic. 5) They’re boring! If I’m going to read books on a device, give me an iPad with all the capability it comes with, distracting as it may be.
  • What happens if Amazon goes out of business? This could be stupid, but I get a little nervous that someday my library won’t be accessible. Companies go out of business all the time. There would probably still be some way for people to keep their electronic copies, but I, for one, am not interested in watching it play out.
  • I missed seeing my whole library. It’s exciting to scan an entire shelf of books and pick one out. When a Kindle library grows the only option to find books is to type titles in the search bar or get scrolling. The library feels hidden.
  • The human element. I’m human, I like to touch and feel and see and smell things. iPads and e-readers are great, but they make every book feel and look and read the same. Books lose some of their personality that way. You can develop a sort of connection with a physical book that isn’t possible when you read it on a device. I guess my point is that books are personal, and that’s important.
  • I have young kids. Studies have shown that households with books raise more literate and successful children. Interestingly, this specific study found that 350 books in a household is a kind of threshold. The benefit for children rose with the number of books in their house until they hit 350, then the benefit leveled off. 350 books appears to be enough to saturate the home, there will be books lying around on end tables and shelves, they’ll be in each person’s room, they’ll be visible all over. I started reading normal books again before coming across this article, but you can bet I counted right away to ensure we had over 350. Besides the study, I’ve noticed an interesting change in my own house since I recommitted to physical books about three months ago. The kids have begun to read more. When they saw me on an iPad they had no idea if I was reading a book or playing a game or whatever, they just wanted to play on an iPad too. There’s something about a Dad’s example that seems to inspire kids, they watch and copy. It’s not like rules changed three months ago, but the example changed, and it has made a noticeable difference.

All told I have no regrets returning to a library of physical books. What I miss most about using a Kindle library is the convenience, it’s a bit of an adjustment carrying books around again, but the advantages have far outweighed the extra weight in my bag.