In Praise of the Little Things

windwaker-memories

I had a very happy childhood. And when I remember my childhood, I always remember a large part of that happiness in the form of playing video games.

(Of course, video games don’t a happy child make: they’re just what I spent most of my very happy childhood doing. It’s like hearing a song associated with your first kiss: the song has become the happy feelings, even though the song wasn’t the original the reason for them.)

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Skim This Post

skim_this_post

Your first 30 seconds into the reading experience.

I hope you skim this post. Anything worth reading is worth skimming first.

We all skim things. It’s not a limitation of the writer or their work; it’s a limitation of communication itself.

And if you write something that’s difficult to skim, your communication is worse for it.

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Do Rules Work?

Do rules work?

Rules are the lazy approach to trying to change someone else’s behavior.

If you can’t leverage emotional connection, tell a good story about what’s important, or understand what really motivates someone, don’t worry! At least you can leverage your authority.

The 5 paragraph essay is helpful until you understand the importance of how structure helps others understand your writing. Then it doesn’t matter very much, and it might actually hurt your writing.

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Hosea: A Love Story – Full Text (Libretto)

hosea libretto brittany leigh

I wrote the words to a wonderful bit of music that my friend Brittany Leigh (soon-to-not-be-Bydalek) wrote and performed for the first time this month.

Here’s the synopsis Brittany put together:

Hosea is a twenty-five minute piece, composed with the intent of utilizing the unique features of the Sheldon [Museum of Art, where it was first performed]. The piece explores the opportunities of different visual and acoustic combinations within a single story. The story is based off of an ancient, Biblical text, and re-contextualized in a modern, classical oratorio style.

This was the first time I wrote a choral thing and then it got performed. My experience writing and then seeing it coming to life is a post for another time. Here’s the full text for anyone who’s interested.

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Fighting the Habit of Assuming the Worst

assuming-the-worst

When we’re in a relationship for any length of time, we form impressions of the other person.

Sometimes our impressions are right, but other times, we’re way off base.

First impressions are useful because there are times we have to make snap judgements about others and think on our feet (is this salesperson trying to scam me?).

But in a longterm situation where cooperation is most important (think marriage, coworkers, bosses) these assumptions can calcify and get in our own way.

[In arguments], the parties’ relationship tends to become entangled with their discussions of substance. On both the giving and receiving end, we are likely to treat people and problem as one. Within the family, a statement such as “The kitchen is a mess” or “Our bank account is low” may be intended simply to identify a problem, but it is likely to be heard as a personal attack.

Getting to Yes, 20

Nothing is stopping me from assuming a potential client is snubbing me when she doesn’t respond for a week. Or that my boss is trying to push me out of that important project when I’m left out of the latest development. Or that the offhand comment my friend made was a secret jab at me. But are these assumptions helpful?

Assuming the worst is scary because

  • It becomes habitual, meaning we don’t notice we’re doing it (instead, we treat our impressions as fact).
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the worst often means changing the way we respond, and actually creating the distance we imagined.

Fighting the Habit

Today I read a great (and hilarious) story about an SEOmoz employee who challenged his boss about an uncomfortable comment she made about another employee. This is a great story about how trust in relationships is built–and how easy it is to (even justifiably!) misconstrue one another. It would have been easy for there to be less openness in SEOmoz’s work environment, and for the employee to never talk about his discomfort.

Potential ways to fight the habit of assuming the worst:

  • Identify assumptions. When you feel negatively about a person, situation, or interaction, stop and think about why you feel that way. Try to figure out your assumptions and seperate them from what actually happened and was said.
  • Test assumptionsOften this is as easy as asking someone a question.
  • Prepare to be wrong.
  • Assume positive intent.

A passage on that last bullet point:

Our relationships at work are sometimes corrupted by negative assumptions that snowball over time. A colleague speaks out against our idea in a meeting, and we think, He’s trying to show off in front of the boss. If this happens another time or two, we might conclude he’s a “brown-boser,” a label that will become self-sustaining …

To interrupt this cycle, some organizational leaders urge their employees to “assume positive intent,” that is, to imagine the behavior or words of your colleagues are motivated by good intentions, even when their actions seems objectionable at first glance. This “filter” can be extremely powerful.

‘… If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed… you don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’

Decisive, 108-109

Understand your negative assumptions, acknowledge them, then actively act the opposite.

When we adopt a habit of assuming the best, we have the same side effects as above (with a twist):

  • It becomes habitual, meaning you foster goodwill until you are explicitly shot down.
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the best often means changing the way we act, and actually dissolve other people’s negative assumptions.

[Image source: deflam via photopin cc]

Statistically Speaking, You’re Nothing Special

Statistically Speaking, You're Nothing Special
I read this answer on Quora to the question “What are the most difficult things people (have to) learn in their twenties?“:

There are always going to be people who are smarter, better looking, more sociable, and just all around “better” than you.  In fact, you’ll learn there are LOTS of people who fit that description.  To be happy, then, you have to learn to accept yourself and your shortcomings.

In a room with ten people, you have pretty decent odds at being the most attractive, or the smartest, or the best at ping pong. But  in an earth-sized room with 7 billion people, your chances of being the “best” anything are slim to none.

Compare Wisely

Make your goal to be the most socially adept or fittest or smartest person in a room. If you walk into enough rooms you’re bound for a life of disappointment.

In other words, we have to be very strategic about where we invest our self-worth–and the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves.

Our natural tendency is to assess our value with comparisons. Often, we make comparisons of ourself against other people–and feel good about ourselves for being more competent than Larry and feel bad for being less competent than Sally.

This way of measuring self worth is haphazard because it’s essentially random.

I can’t control who walks into the room, what natural abilities they have and how much opportunity they’ve been presented with in life.

The Person You Should Compete With

I think a lot of contentment happens when you stop asking “am I better than that new person over there?” and instead ask “Am I better than the self I was last week? How about a year ago?

Comparison is a powerful storytelling tool, but it’s only as good as your benchmark. If you ask the right question, you’re still comparing, but it’s against your own benchmarks–and significantly less arbitrary.

You  control your own goals and track your own progress. You can control whether you’re a little bit better runner or a little more patient individual than you were last week. You have a natural ability that you can capitalize on and invest in. You have weaknesses you can minimize.

Statistically speaking, each of us individually is nothing special. But statistics aren’t everything.

You’re worthwhile. It’s just that (thankfully) that worth isn’t simply based on comparing yourself to someone else in our 7-billion-person room.

When you tell your story, make it about how you’ve changed (or been changed). Don’t spend the whole time accidentally talking about everyone else.

[Image source: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc]

It’s All Made By Humans

boy swimming in a pool underwaterThe real barrier to most of us doing things isn’t the thing itself, but the stuff we put around it.

A few days ago I started taking some lessons on a site called Codecademy. It’s a website that helps newbies learn how to code.

I really like the idea of the site. It’s a really easy, intuitive system to cajole a beginner into making computers do things. Codecademy realizes the real struggles that accompany learning something new. A good teacher helps us take away all of the barriers that we use to keep ourselves from trying new things–e.g., “I can’t go to the store because I’d have to shower and put on my makeup and some shoes”–by making the learning experience extremely simple and piecemeal.

Don’t know how to code? Fine. You know how to type your name in between quotes after the word ‘alert,’ right? Look! There your name is, in a popup window. Neat, huh? Don’t have to download any new programs, read a textbook or put on your makeup.

 

I’ve been interested in learning HTML and web design for about a year now. As I approached graduation a year ago, I was insecure and worried I didn’t have any marketable skills. Since I like the idea of creating things, and I am good with language and systematic thought, it seemed like a natural go-to. So I picked up a few book with the words “For Dummies” on the cover and started learning a little bit, but then I stopped learning because there were too many psychological barriers and I wasn’t really that motivated.

When I encounter a big body of knowledge, or a unfamiliar culture or a kind of music that I don’t understand, I take comfort in the fact that in the end, it’s all made by humans.

Linear Algebra? Humans came up with that. Portugese? Also a human invention. Car repair? A being with my same general equipment and faculties dreamed up each of those internal parts. Even the most dizzing complex literary theory had to first happen in a person’s brain.

When you enter a new field of knowledge or a new job, it’s disorienting. You can only tackle a few things at once, until you get used to them. Backing your car out of the driveway requires a near impossible level of physical coordination and mental firepower the first time you do it, but seasoned drivers have been documented literally driving in their sleep.

 

I’m comforted knowing that every human system started as imagination in a normal person’s mind: a person who had insecurities and trouble sleeping and awkward family gatherings and occasional moments of brilliance–but mostly just normal ones.

Of course, the really difficult things to learn aren’t the systems and the facts. Things like emotional maturity and being able to step outside of yourself are what’s really difficult. Stuff like learning to code (without giving up). Blogging real things adequately every day instead of  just fantasizing about creating The Perfect Blog, someday. Asking a question in class and taking on the risk of being the stupid one.

The really tough things are more like making yourself get into a pool and taking on the agony of letting your body temperature slowly adjust. It’s not any less jarring or uncomfortable to jump into the cold water first, but it can be psychologically easier, because it’s a commitment. A commitment to the discomfort that comes with the change.

Codecademy has something called “streaks.” You get a reward for every consecutive day, as long as you finish even one lesson. Lessons don’t take very long–maybe ten minutes. It’s a clever way of tricking you into learning, by making it easier to take the first (and hardest) steps of what could be a life-long lesson.

It’s another way to goad you back into the pool. To be uncomfortable for a little while, until you find yourself having fun.

It’s Codecademy’s version of the old staple:

“Come on in! The water’s fine.”

[Image source: Luis Hernandez – D2k6.es via photopin cc]