Ducks in a row

I’ve always been a person to do things wholeheartedly. This was the case when I started writing rap music at the age of 12, it was the case when I got into rowing, it was the case when I got into investing. When something grips my interest, it grips me by the balls and won’t let go.

Balance is not a words I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that either something was worth doing 100% or it wasn’t worth doing at all.

Lately though, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I’ve slowly but surely come to the conclusion that if I want to have all my ducks in a row I need more than a single duck – meaning if I want live a meaningful life, it can’t just be composed of a single thing. It can’t just be one thing one hundred percent and all other things zero percent.

To give you an example I’m familiar with, let’s talk about rowing. In rowing, if you pull too hard it’s actually counterproductive. What you want is a smooth, steady rhythm composed of effort and rest in almost equal measures – I figure that is a very handy analogy for life. At least the life that I want to live.

What’s more, I’ve found the best results in my life when I’ve aimed for balance. Whenever I’ve gone all-in on something I’ve quickly burned out. The fun went out of it. It became too serious. I became too serious.

About it.

And that made all that was good about it not good.

Effort. Rest. Balance. Moderation.

Not all-out power.

Simple. Obvious.

Yet for some reason difficult to grasp.

Why we fail to reach our goals and what to do about it

If you’ve ever read a personal development book, I’m sure you’ve come across the importance of goal-setting. Everyone and his brother seems to lament the importance of setting big goals, shooting for the moon and going all in.

This might be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.

Not only does this not work, but it is actually counter-productive and demotivating according to this study.

Humans are creatures of habit, and our habits are most often based on what’s easy for us to do. What this means is that if we want to accomplish anything, we need to make sure our goal is something which doesn’t take an enormous amount of effort to do, and that it is mostly within our own control.

For instance – you can’t control whether or not you become the next Jimi Hendrix, but you can control whether you practice playing the guitar for 30 minutes each day. Playing for 30 minutes each day is achievable, within your control, and adds up over time, and those elements are the keys to achieving anything worthwhile, so let me repeat it for good measure.

If your goals are achievable and within your control they will add up to a lot over time. The reason why so many fail to do this, is because we overreach – we want to achieve our goals tomorrow, and become the greatest in the world within an unrealistically short time frame.

This is also the reason why we’re so fascinated by the people who achieve outsized success, because we subconsciously recognize that what they have achieved is super-human, insofar that they have had to circumvent their natural wiring in order to get to where they are today.

While we may not see the thousands of hours in the gym, or the frustrating hours in front of the computer trying to write something worthwhile or excel at making spreadsheets (sorry), we recognize that the people who have truly mastered a given subject have put in an immense amount of effort in order to do so, and the whole point here is that so can we – as long as we take sufficiently small steps, and practice our craft diligently and persistently

You might already be at a point in your career where you are well on your way to mastering a subject and you just need a little nudge to make the final leap to complete mastery. Or maybe you are in the beginning of your journey and you’re feeling all jittery or excited, or maybe you’re in what Seth Godin calls the Dip – the point where you’ve achieved some progress and then stalled, because the effort required to reach the next level is more than you’re able or willing to put in right now.

Whatever your case, keep in mind that making your goal achievable and within your control is the first step to making enormous progress, but it is going to take a long time, and we must realize this if we want to achieve anything worthwhile.

As long as we’re stuck in the mindset that we have to achieve large goals in a short period of time, we will keep falling into the same trap and give up every time we encounter adversity, because we feel like we should be able reach our goal almost effortlessly.

In reality however, overcoming adversity is one of the best indicators for high achievement, but that’s a subject for another post.

For now, suffice it to say that when you know what you want, you have to figure out one action you can repeat day in and day out that will move you closer to your goal.

Three lessons I learned from one of the dumbest things I ever did

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. That’s how it is – I’m not perfect, and I don’t think there is any use in pretending that’s the case. What’s important to me is that every time I make a mistake I learn something from it, something valuable, and something which ensures that I never make that same mistake again.

When I was 14 a good friend of mine I played football with, got jumped by a few older guys, and they beat him up pretty badly, which obviously upset everyone who knew this person, including everyone on the team.

Except for this one person who said that he thought he had it coming, and made it very clear that he thought what happened to him was well-deserved.

Now, this is not a very nice thing to say about anyone, and again everyone involved was super upset, and this is where my stupidity started rearing its ugly head, because at this point I started talking to some of my friends about beating up this guy who had been running his mouth, and I let myself get talked into it, not because I wanted to stand up for my friend or because I wanted to live up to some sort of personal code, but because I wanted to be cool and popular.

Let me say that again for emphasis – I punched someone in the face because I wanted to be cool and popular.

That is one of the single dumbest things I’ve done in my life.

But what happened subsequently is more important than the event itself for a number of reasons, as I’m sure you’ll agree in a few minutes.

After the episode, which was incidentally caught on camera, with one of the very first camera phones, I got called into the principal’s office, and she tore me a new one, and decided that in her mind I had crossed the line, and she decided to expel me from the school, which meant I had to find a new school.

On top of that, the person I’d hit or his parents – most likely the latter – decided to press charges, which resulted in a court case, and me having to pay a pretty serious fine.

Throughout all of this, my mom was a nervous wreck, which is understandable, because she didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, and I’m sure the uncertainty got to her.

When I think back to this which happened some 15 years ago, I can’t help but to think that I didn’t understand the severity of it all. I might not have actually been able to comprehend what was really happening or the potential consequences. What still bugs me the most however, is my motive for doing what I did, and that leads me directly to lesson number 1:

Never let your actions be dictated by your perception of others’ opinion of you

We all care about other people’s opinion of us. It’s natural and it’s most likely a relic from the time we lived in hunter-gatherer societies and our survival depended on being accepted in the group. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best course of action however – in fact, in our modern society I’d go so far as to say that caring too much about others’ opinion of you is most likely counter-productive, because it can force you to take actions which go against your principles, or which are downright stupid, as my story aptly shows.

And while that story might be an extreme example, it is illustrative nonetheless, and with that, let’s have a look at lesson number 2: 

Our actions have unintended and far-ranging consequences

When I decided to punch someone in the face, I didn’t give one ounce of consideration to the consequences. I just did it and figured that would be the end of it, but that’s not how the world works. The world works in such a way that every action has reactions. Not only an equal and opposite reaction, but many related reactions which influence and are influenced by an unseemly number of factors, chief among them other human beings and the systems of society. Not in my wildest dreams did I figure that I would end up in court, or that I would have to change schools, but that’s what happened nonetheless.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we put our every action under a microscope and examine everything we do in the minutest of details, but I am suggesting that we take time to reflect on the fact that what we do might affect us later on, and might even affect those around us as well, which leads to lesson number 3:

What we do can affect our loved ones as much – or more – as ourselves

I never knew I could have make my parents – mom and my stepdad – as sad as I did. They were devastated, and I’m sure I would have been if I was in their shoes. If this had been the only consequence of what I did, and I had realized this beforehand, I would never have done it. Not in a million years. But I didn’t think about that, and that’s the whole issue. What we do intensely affect the people we love, and that is all the more reason to give careful consideration to the things we do before we do them – all the more reason to be careful with our actions, because they might affect our loved ones as much or more as ourselves.

 

On What’s Important And How to Say No

The realization that in the history of the human race, no one has ever survived old age is a profound one. Now, this doesn’t mean that we won’t eventually find a cure for ageing, and in my opinion Tim Urban has explained this beautifully. Let’s just for arguments sake however, say that we are not going to live forever, which means that we will someday run out of time in this beautiful world.

That means, that we have to make it very clear to ourselves what’s important to us. What’s going to matter, when we look back on our life? Will it matter what title we have at our company? Or will it matter that we had a lot of fun while we worked, and we got to spend our time with amazing people? Maybe we can do both. But I know which one is more important to me.

When we realize that our time is finite, we also inevitably realize that the extra hour or two we spend working, might not be worth it, if it means missing time with our fiancee, missed snuggles with our cat, a missed workout or whatever might else might be more important to us. Don’t get me wrong – if work is what’s most important to you, then by all means spend all the time you can doing it. I have a close friend who loves his job – and I’m fairly sure he would rather work than not, because it gives him an intense sense of satisfaction, and I still love him all the same.

My point is that our best course of action is to prioritize consciously, so that we don’t end up getting roped into things which we derive no pleasure from. We want to spend our time on the things which brings us the most value. This doesn’t mean skipping out on family get-togethers or only doing things which you want to do, but it does mean that we can say No without feeling bad or guilty. It means that we need to figure out if other people’s opinion are important to us, and if so, why?

Here’s the main point: I can’t decide what’s important for you. I can only decide what I find important and that only applies to me. If I can pass along a single idea from this post it is this:

Decide what is important to you and what is not, and make your best effort to spend your time according to that decision.

The Three Most Powerful Anti-Depressants I Know

Many people in my family suffer from depression. My grandmothers on both sides were severely affected by depression and my father’s mother used to be bedridden for weeks at a time when she was still alive.

My father suffered severely from depression, and would go months where he was unable to function. Throughout his life he’s struggled with a number of mental health issues over the years and sadly it has opened up a gulf between us – and while I forgive him, I do not wish to spend my time with him.

The reason I mention my family-tree is deeply tainted with depression, is to highlight the fact, that luckily I’ve been spared, which is more unlikely than not, given the history in my family.  Now because, I’m an only child, I don’t have any siblings to study as a control group, but I do believe that there are several other reasons which explains my fortunate mental health, because clearly it is not explained by my genetic makeup.

First and foremost I believe that every person has a higher degree of control over their outlook on life, than we give ourselves credit for. I believe that we can choose to view the world in any number of ways, and if we make a conscious effort, we can choose to look for the upside in any given situation and cultivate an overall positive outlook on life as a result.

My personal experience is that it’s highly effective in combating depression and severe mood-swings, simply because it is fairly difficult to focus on what’s good in your life and on what’s bad in your life simultaneously. I realize that there are more nuances to clinical depression than just thinking bad thoughts, but my experience is that if we consciously look for upside in our lives, we are likely to find it.

Thankfully, science has my back – it’s called the Tetris effect.

Another element which contributes significantly to any persons well-being – I’m no exception – is regular exercise. We’re not talking about ultra-runs or Iron Men or bodybuilder physiques – we’re just talking about moving your body a little every day. I’ve found that doing so is incredibly helpful in terms of warding off any negative emotions. On my best days and my worst days, I’ve always found exercise to be an incredible mood-lifter and it doesn’t matter if it’s going for a run, lifting weights, rowing, biking or simply walking – moving my body around lifts my spirits significantly, regardless of how I do it.

The final habit, which I believe is the most powerful one of the three, is the habit of journaling. Specifically the habit of writing down 3-5 things every day, which I’m grateful for. I’m aware that this can come across as cheesy, and overly simplistic, but I dare you to try it, and tell me the results.

In my experience there is nothing more powerful than expressing my gratitude each and every single day.

Not only does this habit make me focus on the positive and so gives me a double-whammy on the Tetris effect, but it also forces me to look for things, for which I am grateful throughout the day, which helps me find them. In my mind, journaling has a number of added benefits on the side as well such as enhanced creativity, better ideas and it makes it easier to connect with others.

The point here is that journaling – and specifically journaling for gratitude – is an insanely powerful tool, and I believe you will find it to work wonders for you if you give it a try.

In summary…

… If you need a mood lift, or if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, or even if you feel severely depressed – maybe even clinically so try any combination of the following

  • Look for the upside
  • Move your body
  • Express your gratitude

All the best

Nick