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Jazz Saturdays: Peel Me a Grape

Like any kind of music, jazz has songs that are pretty quirky. One of my favorite jazz composers is Dave Frishberg. His songs are hilarious with layered narratives and lyrics that make you feel like you’re on the inside of an inside joke.

Many of you already know one of his songs. He’s best known as the composer of I’m Just a Bill from Schoolhouse Rock.

Recently my daughter was deciding which songs she should sing for a showcase in her vocal jazz class. I immediately suggested Peel Me a Grape. (Than after a moment’s consideration, both because I’m her dad and because she’s only 12, we went with a different Frishberg gem, [My Attorney Bernie]. I’d like to wait a few years before she adds “sultry” to the ways she knows how to sing.)

Here’s my favorite version of Peel Me a Grape by Diana Krall:

Hope you enjoy your Saturday night. Whoever it is that you peel grapes for, get to peeling!

I was thrilled that my three kids, ages 12, 14, and 15, were able to get their first vaccine dose today. Still in awe that we have this medical magic available to us.

Quote of the day: Pressing toward the mark

It is not so much about what we are going through in life but what we are becoming. There is joy in pressing toward the mark.

-Edward Dube

I often think of quotes like this when days get long or struggles persist. The idea of finding joy in our journey through life is a powerful one. It won’t help us through all of life’s rough patches, but the reminder to try and view life from a larger perspective is powerful and useful.

I shaved my beard down to just a mustache today. I think it looks pretty Ron Swanson. My kids just laughed and said I look like Uncle Vernon. (sigh)

On Mother’s Day

I’m lucky to both live close to my parents and have a good relationship with them. My kids are probably the greatest beneficiaries. Today we had a wonderful evening together eating BBQ and celebrating my Mom.

After dinner my youngest brother was horsing around and shook up a can of soda then opened it. It didn’t explode (he was disappointed, haha) but it reminded me of one of my favorite stories about my mom.

Mom was the youngest of four siblings. Her next oldest sibling, my Aunt Sue, was a teenager when Mom was in elementary school. Sue would give her money and send her to the corner store to get a Coke. Mom would walk up the hill to the store, but the Coke, then roll the Coke down the hill on the way home. She would then give the Coke to Sue and wait outside the door for the explosion. If she was fast she could hear the can explode and run away before she got caught.

Such moxy. Seeing my brother try and pull his shaken can trick made me think of that story, and of a quote from Mitch Albom:

But there’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.

Happy Mother’s Day to you Mom and to all Mothers out there! Thank you for all you do and for being the beginning of our stories.

Remembering Jazz with Bob Parlocha

One of the pivitol moments of my life came in 9th grade when the high school jazz band teacher asked me to join the jazz band. I was the only high school string bass player in the entire school district. He didn’t have many options, so he took a chance on me.

I fell in love jazz. It was fun to play, and as I learned and improved I started to enjoy listening to it as well.

There weren’t many radio stations in Kansas City that played jazz back then. (Even today there aren’t.) This was long before streaming music or internet radio. The best chance l had to listen to jazz was by borrowing cassette tapes and CDs or staying up late to listen to the overnight jazz programs on the radio. Jazz with Bob Parlocha was my favorite, from 1 AM to 6 AM.

I had a clock radio that I world listen to under the covers, hoping I wouldn’t wake up family members. My parents must have thought I was insane. As often as I could I would set my alarm for 1 AM and tune in as Bob spun records and told stories. It was an amazing musical education.

I’ll never forget the time he played two songs in a row from the Chick Corea album “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.” It was incredible. String bass as an equal partner in a piano trio! Listening to Charles Mingus’ big band was another eye opening experience. String bass as the leader of a whole band! More than anyone else, Bob taught me to love both the music and the culture of jazz.

Today it seems like you can listen to anything, anytime. I wonder if I would have come to love jazz quite so much if I didn’t have to struggle to find and listen to it. The struggle made it much more precious to me.


Bob Parlocha passed away in 2015 at 77. His daughter Tawna keeps a website where you can listen to the Jazz with Bob Parlocha archives.

My favorite current program that I listen to whenever I have a chance is Jazz in the Night with Bob McWilliams.

The Joy of Books

Not long after graduating from college, my wife and I moved to Taiwan. We were a short time away from the arrival of our first child, I had no real job prospects after graduating with a history degree, and we both missed Taiwan. Going “home” seemed like a great plan. (Taiwan is my wife’s first home and I consider it my second home.)

And it was great. My wife was close to her mom through the end of her pregnancy and the delivery. We were helped through that stressful time by family that had a lot more baby experience then we did.

I was soon teaching full time. I’m sure I am not the first new dad to deal with the stress of having newborn and work by watching TV. The interesting quirk in this case is that this was before streaming services and our TV only had a handful of channels in English. They were all movie channels.

Anytime I wanted to watch TV it was a two hour commitment. The movies weren’t very good either. After watching “Sharknado,” a truly terrible waste of time, l decided I needed to make a change.

A trip to the bookstore to load up on English books did the trick. Two hours spent in a book never felt like two hours wasted. Not everything I read was great literature, but I also don’t recall finishing any books and thinking “there goes two hours of my life I will never get back.”

It’s fun to think back on that time and remember the books I read or was reading when important events happened. I finished The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the hospital after my son was born. I finished A Tale of Two Cities just before my daughter arrived. I was reading a Stephen King novel when I got my first raise.

Time spent with a book is never time wasted.

Far better is it to dare mighty things…

It’s been kind of a grey and dreary day. On days like this I think of one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:

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.

Things that make Work From Home better

  1. A window. This is both for fresh air and to look at. If you can swing it, arrange your work area so that the window isn’t directly behind you or directly in front of you. To the side will give you good light without washing out your screen or making you feel uncomfortable with an open window behind you.
  2. A door. Bonus points if it closes and can lock. We’ve all seen enough mid-meeting interruptions during WFH. Like the window, if you have the flexibility arrange your work area so the door isn’t behind you. This gives you a feeling of safety. (And it’s better Fengshui if you believe in that sort of thing.)
  3. An elevated screen. This applies to work from anywhere. Your neck will thank you. You can do this with a laptop by putting it on a pile of books or a stand, or with an external monitor. Bonus points for having a separate keyboard and mouse/trackpad as this really gives you more flexibility in how you arrange the screen.
  4. Music. I’m a big fan of Accuradio which has tons of stations across all the genres I’m interested in. It’s also free and ad free. No idea what their business model is, but I’m glad I found them.
  5. Books. I know I’m lucky; my work allows me the flexibility to do research during work hours and much of it can be found in great books. Leave your screen, find a comfortable spot, and dive into a book for a bit. It cleanses your mental palate like few other things.
  6. A sense of humor. WFH can be the worst sometimes, but it can also be pretty great. Glory in wacky Zoom backgrounds. Rejoice when kids/pets/roommates/strangers interrupt your work. Chuckle about that mustard stain that graced your shirt all afternoon and was seen by everyone but you. We’ve all had enough schadenfreude and languishing. Find the funny in your WFH each day.

Breathe 📚

In the last few months I’ve made a small but radical change: I breathe through my nose. For those of you who have always been nose breathers this probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. I have been a mouth breather for as long as I can remember. Other than knowing that I was a “mouth breather,” it never really bothered me. I broke my nose a couple of times in high school and even had surgery. Breathing through my nose just seemed like something that wasn’t in the cards for me. Then I read the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor.

Before reading this book, only one person had ever suggested that I need to nose breathe. He was my dentist in Taiwan and he spent 10 minutes at the end of one of my checkups telling me how I could practice nose breathing and how it would help me. I was just glad to not get lectured on flossing. I tried a few of the exercises he mentioned, but they were hard and I didn’t keep at it.

I’ve always been chronically stuffy. Spring is allergy season for me and in years past I just expected to have 3-4 months of total nasal blockage. I also got frequent ear infections because my sinuses were so blocked up. It was terrible, but usually improved over the summer. Dry winter air clogged things up again.

Snoring has also been a problem for me. I snore like a Mack truck. It’s loud. I’ve tried breath-rite strips, funky headbands, special pillows, and other uncomfortable things I can’t recall but which did not work. I just assumed that wall shaking snores were my lot in life. (Did I mention I broke my nose? That must be why! Nothing I can do about it, right?)

Breath opened my eyes to how important it is to breathe the right way. (To be clear, breathing the right way means breathing through your nose.) I’ve been working on consciously nose breathing for the last four months. At first it was a constant battle to both catch when I switched to mouth breathing and then to focus on nose breathing long enough to get into a pattern. Over the first month I was pretty sure it would never become a firm habit, but I kept at it because I started to feel better.

At night, I started taping my mouth shut. The first couple of nights were uncomfortable and I ripped the tape off after a few hours. But starting the third night something amazing happened: I slept great. I woke up refreshed. My snoring was reduced from wall shaking to just mildly annoying. On nights when I forget or am just too lazy to get the tape (I use a strip of 3M clear surgical tape about 1.25 inches long), I can tell a big difference in the morning. My mouth is dry, my nose is clogged, and my breath is really bad. On nights I use the tape I have none of those problems. The only hard part is getting the adhesive out of my mustache.

After a few months of effort, nose breathing has become a habit. I’m not good at forming good health habits. For me this is a big deal. Here are some of the effects I’ve seen:

  • Better sleep, both subjectively and as tracked by my Apple Watch
  • Lower resting heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved stamina

Of course it’s hard to pinpoint which lifestyle changes lead to which effects. I wasn’t doing this in a lab. But since I’ve made correct breathing a priority I’ve seen some other improvements like more success in intermittent fasting and better results with Wim Hof Method practice. It’s possible that one of those things was the root cause of the positive changes, but I’ve tried to have a consistent IF practice for a few years and have never done well. The last four months have been great, both in terms of compliance and in terms of results.

Check out Breath. It’s a quick read, very entertaining, and it will give you the building blocks you need to improve your breathing.

Better breathing is free, but it’s had a huge positive effect for me.

Focus on the end goal, not the shiny extras

During college I played music professionally. It was a wonderful experience and I loved getting to know and work with some pretty crazy people.

Jazz musicians in particular can be neurotic at times. (That’s why I fit in so well, haha!) Take sax players. Some sax players never take their horn off. Wherever they go they have their horn in their hand and they are always noodling on a riff or a solo idea. Other sax players are obsessed with their gear. Mouthpieces, reeds, pads, ligatures. If you can switch it out and experiment they’ll try it.

Of these two types of sax player, which do you think were the better musicians? The gear heads were tons of fun to be around, but the obsessive players were much better folks to have on the bandstand with you. They were so good because they focused on playing, which of course is the end goal of being a musician.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Whatever it is you do in your work or your art, make sure you focus on the most important parts. Being a gear head is easy: focus on the minutiae, the shiny objects. You’ll spend money in pursuit of better gear, which can be mistaken for making progress in your work or your art.

It’s better instead to focus on the end goal of your work. Ship your art. Make that your mission. Don’t lose sight of that goal.

Anchor Moments Can Turn the Course of Your Life

When I was 20 I left on a great adventure as a missionary in Taiwan for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I spoke no Mandarin, knew no one there, and frankly didn’t even know myself very well. It was the greatest two years of my life. (And I can trace every important thing that’s happened since back to those two years in one way or another.)

One of the pivotal moments of my life happened on the side of a busy road in the town of Taidong. I had been in Taiwan for about four months. Communication was less of a struggle than it had been when I first arrived, but I was spending most of the day in a haze of half comprehension. (Few things in life will toughen you up like the laughter you cause in native speakers when you’re butchering their language.) My Mandarin had improved to the point that I could read enough to get by, I understood most of what I heard, and people mostly understood when I spoke.

On this particular morning I went with my companion to the train station. He was going to visit another set of missionaries a few train stops away and I would pick him up from the station later in the evening. I hopped on my bike and began the ride home to meet up with two other missionaries I would spend the day with. I’d gone about 2 km, halfway to the apartment, when I realized that I was alone for the first time in months. LDS missionaries always work in pairs. We frequently switched companions (like my companion was doing that day) or worked in groups of three or more, but we never worked alone. Yet here I was, alone. I had a window of 20-30 minutes where I could do anything I wanted and no one would ever know.

A whole slew of ideas ran through my head. 20 year olds don’t like following rules, and I had spent the last seven months (three in language school and four in Taiwan) ensconced in rules all day long. Here was my chance to break whichever rules I wanted, even if it was just a small one. I stopped my bike by the side of the road to think.

That moment was crucial for me. As I let my mind wander over all the possibilities that short window of time would give me I was amazed how quickly it went to things I would never consider doing under normal circumstances. I had the clear thought that the choice I made in that moment would define me for the rest of my life. No one was watching, no one would know. Who am I really? Who do I want to be? Time to choose.

I’ve never forgotten that minute by the side of the road in Taidong. That was an “anchor moment” in my life. Anchors don’t stop boats from moving. They keep a boat from moving very far. I’m not a perfect person and I haven’t always made the best choices. But remembering that day has always helped me because when I had the choice of doing anything, I chose to be someone I can be proud of. That’s who I decided to be and who I try to be each day.

We all have moments like this. It’s hard to tell which moments are significant as they happen. Most only gain significance as time passes. For me, one moment by the side of a busy road in Taidong, Taiwan has made a difference. Your moments will be just as insignificantly significant.

The most important thing is that we strive to be a bit better each day. Try to live true to the person you want to be. Remember your anchor moments and let them bring you back when you drift off course.

A Principles-based Approach to Learning a New Skill

Recently I started learning SEO. For many years I had a basic understanding of SEO principles, but I never put that knowledge into action. Now I understand why SEO consultants make so much money! This is hard stuff, and boring to boot.

It’s safe to say that keyword research isn’t a natural passion of mine. Does that mean I should give up? No! All skills worth having are hard. The harder a skill is to learn the more valuable it is.

This is the beauty of learning through principles. I know that this is an expected part of the learning process, the first bottleneck of many but one that I can overcome. I’ve been through this in other domains. Three months into learning Mandarin I felt like a complete idiot who would never be able to carry on a conversation. The first month playing classical guitar made me want to cry, both because my fingers hurt and because I was so terrible. Putting together my first WordPress site was one frustration after another. (And that site got hacked just after it went live!)

So I’ll take my lumps and try to enjoy it as I slog through keyword research. I’m going to make some stupid mistakes along the way, get frustrated because it doesn’t seem to be working, and feel like giving up. But in the end it will be worth it.

Wisdom from The Art of War, Part 1

Steven Pressfield, one of my favorite authors, recently released a new book I’m reading called Man at Arms. Another of Pressfield’s books that you may have heard of is the The War of Art. It’s a great book about resistance and how we can push past it to do creative work.

Thinking about Steven’s books brought my mind back to the book he borrowed his book’s title from, The Art of War by Sunzi. This is an ancient Chinese book on military strategy. It’s proven to be incredibly evergreen and applies to many areas of modern work, particularly business strategy. Here are some of my favorite passages:

Action

  • Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of the trigger.

  • If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.

Self Knowledge

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.

Preparation

  • Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

  • The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.

If you love to read… you will have an amazing life

Favorite quote from my reading last week:

If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period. Life will always have hardships, pressure, and incredibly annoying people, but books will make it all worthwhile. In books, you will find your North Star, and you will find you, which is why you are here.

Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.

Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.

Anne Lamott from A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader

Jazz Saturdays - Equinox

On Saturdays I get to do one of my favorite things in the world: play and teach jazz at the Kansas City Jazz Academy. Saturday posts will be about jazz and music.

Music is much more than just notes. We spend a lot of time focusing on notes, especially the “right notes,” but notes are really just a small part of the whole picture of making music.

Equinox by John Coltrane is a beautiful song. It’s filled with sadness and longing. In many ways it’s a jazz lament.

It’s also in the key of C sharp. This isn’t a key that anyone plays in frequently. At the academy we spent many rehearsals talking about what scales can be played for solos over the chord changes of Equinox. We spent a lot of time practicing those scales. Then we spent a lot of time playing those scales and notes from those scales to make solos. It’s hard. The kids in the band really had to work at it.

But if we only focus on the notes we lose the bigger picture of the piece. Emotion doesn’t come from notes. Notes alone can’t tell a story or convey an experience. They are one piece of the puzzle, but it’s easy to focus so much on that piece that we forget all the other parts of music that we need in order to really make music.

When you’re in the weeds of your work or your art, never forget about the bigger picture. The song isn’t the notes.

A Little Bit Like My Dad

My father is a great teacher. Growing up I loved learning from him, watching him prepare, and most of all watching him teach. The lessons I learned from him made a big difference as I went to college and started to have some teaching and presentation oportunities of my own. After graduation I even taught for a few years before moving on into another field.

During this school year I’ve been a volunteer teacher for a class my oldest son attends. My father is the supervisor for the program. I get to have monthly teacher training meetings with him as well as quarterly group training. While I’m the one in the classroom teaching, his influence is in just about everything I do. He taught me how to ask questions, tell jokes, pace a lesson, break the ice, build rapport, and so many others.

This evening I watch three of my students chatting together after an activity. Over the last eight months I’ve seen my little class of 15 years olds grow and mature and become wonderful young men and women. They tease me when my jokes don’t land, groan when I call on them to answer questions, roll their eyes at my funny quirks. It’s probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve had outside of the experiences I’ve had with my own kids.

And through it all I think of my father. Of the hundreds and thousands of students he has had these types of experiences with. Of the teachers he has trained, helped, and shaped with his skills and deep empathy. If not for my dad I would never have had this amazing year with my little class.

I hope I get to volunteer again next year.

The Paradox of Focus

The more we focus on the less we accomplish. At least that’s my experience. This doesn’t preclude getting many different things done, but it does mean that you need to protect your focus at any given moment in order to do good work.

Recently I’ve been playing Suduko. I love the way that it rewards concentration with a cascade of success. Focus on completing a house, a row, or a column, and you’ll be met with a series of other open moves across the board. Focusing on the entire board brings overwhelm. Focusing on a small portion opens up possibilies across the board.

In our work it is essential that we jealously guard our time and focus. Single task. Be present. To the extent you can control it, say no (or not now) to anything that will slow down the work you have before you.

James Clear put this beautifully in his newsletter:

Make the most of one opportunity and more opportunities will come your way.

Moving boldly in one direction causes more paths to unfold before you.

To get more, focus on less…

A Little Langston Hughes Question

In the car today I talked with my kids about the results of the Chauvin trial. The depth of their understanding and nuance in their opinions was surprising. It was sad to hear that my oldest had seen the video of George Floyd being murdered. (When I asked, he said “everyone at school has seen it.” What a price we pay when technology opens the door for everyone to view anything.)

I’m sorry that so many people still deal with racism. I wish it wasn’t this way. Living overseas where I was a minority gave me a few glimmers of understanding to what that must feel like.

I’m sad I had to have the talk with my kids about what to do when they interact with police. Existential sadness over the state of the world is bad, but it’s so much better than my dear child not emerging from a police encounter with their life.

I’m reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes, Question [1]:

When the old junk man Death
Comes to gather up our bodies
And toss them into the sack of oblivion,
I wonder if he will find
The corpse of a white multi-millionaire
Worth more pennies of eternity,
Than the black torso of
A Negro cotton-picker?

Let’s try to be good to one another. Love each other. We all need it so much now.

Why yes, it did snow 4 inches on April 20. This is why we can’t have nice gardens until May in the Midwest US.

Today I did an upgrade to a Discourse site. Wow, was it ever a great experience. I never thought “surprise and delight” would be my reaction to upgrading a forum. But it was. I wish I knew someone on the Discourse product team so I could thank them.

I had a brainwave today and am excited to work on porting my personal site over to microblog tomorrow. I haven’t written much at all in the past year, and a big part of the reason is that it’s not an easy process. This is though! Should be fun.

Today I had to let an employee go. I think this is the worst part about my work. I feel so sad and angry. Good thing this is very infrequently needed or I would not be able to keep on in this job.

Adulting was so hard today.

So excited and grateful that I will have my first vaccine dose this morning. I know the vial contains science and medicine, but it feels like it’s full of magic and hope. ♥️💉

Tomorrow I have a convergence of several large projects to coordinate with a software release. I feel the same way now as I did in college the night before finals. Wish me luck!

One of the things I have really enjoyed over the winter was finding ways to “hygge” up my house. Candles, chonky blankets, family movie nights, and lots of chocolate. Now that spring is here? I think hygge is here to stay.

For the first time in my life, I completed a full NYT crossword puzzle. Took me a couple of days and was an easy one. I can absolutely see why people do the crossword every day!

This week has been amazing in terms of warm weather and spring goodness. And pollen. Nothing ruins a fine spring like allergies. 🤧

I’ve been thinking about the past year a lot this week. Reflection is a good thing and it’s helped me see the ways the last year has been positive (instead of the negatives). I can’t help but chuckle as I read my journal entries from this time last year though.

As my kids get older we have some interesting conversations about music. Tonight we were flipping through channels on SiriusXM and ran across Say, Say, Say by McCartney and MJ. It was fun to see their faces as they realized who was singing. 🎵

It’s been a while since I wrote here. What a wild ride the last few months have been. I hope everyone is doing well. Excited that the sun is out ☀️ the weather is beautiful 😊 and spring is here 🌱

You Need to Talk to Your Customers More

One of my favorite “old man” stories to tell my kids is about the computer science department at my university. I’m not really that old, but I am old enough that I remember watching CS majors in the computer lab using the dot matrix printers to print out their coding assignments. (I am old enough that I didn’t have my own computer in college, but then again I was a history major so as long as I had books and pen and paper I was well equipped for my classes.) The campus computer labs had the 3.5” disk drives. When I moved out of the dorms the only internet I could get at my place was dialup.

At this point I can hear my kids groaning and telling me to “get off the lawn” so I’ll come to the point. Most of the things I do in my work each day were not only unavailable when I was in school, they weren’t even a concept. The cloud? 😂 Software as a Service? 🤣 In my day, sonny, software came in an actual box!

The internet has changed everything in a short time. It’s important to remember that. Your customers are running up against these changes and looking for tools to help them. That’s probably why they found your product. You need to talk to your customers so that you understand what they need and why. Listen to them and explain how you can help.

When we have conversations with customers we’ll know their needs and wants much better than we ever will through post-purchase surveys, NPS scores, or exit questions. Actual conversations give more insight than in-app tracking or heat maps. It’s sometimes hard, but talking to your customers will tell you so much that you didn’t realize and will make your entire business better as a result.

Recognize Small Victories

One of the hardest parts of the work we do in customer success is, big surprise, dealing with customers. At times this is amazing and very rewarding. At other times it can be the worst.

Many support agents and customer success managers end up spending a lot of time with unhappy customers. The day after day grind of work can leave you feeling like all of your customers hate you and your product is trash. Intellectually you know that’s not true, but emotionally it can feel that way.

How do you avoid falling into this trap? One way is to consciously and consistently celebrate little victories. Here are some examples of how we do that at SpiderOak.

The User Olympics. (We should probably change this to Customer Olympics, haha.) When someone on the team finds a customer with something unique or outrageous about their account we add it to our User Olympics page. Have a computer with the system time 50 years out of date? Added 72 devices to your account? Contacted support 24 times this week? Congratulations! You’re on the way to a position of fame in the User Olympics!

Everyone enjoys the break and the humor of a user olympics announcement. Work stops while we ooh and ah at the absurdity of it, and we bond a bit during the break. Find something similar that works in your company.

Acknowledge Great Work. I run the social media accounts for SpiderOak, so I see the compliments and kudos that customers give. Screenshots go into our #staff channel so everyone at the company gets to see happy customers praising the team.

I also love making announcements to the company for big milestones like getting a big renewal signed, getting the support queues down to zero, or finishing a big project.

Shining a spotlight on small victories is even more important if your company works remotely. Little announcements and compliments about your team may be the only frame of reference other employees have about them. Make the time to shine a positive light on them and you’ll see great things happen as a result.

Cleaning Up Documentation

Once a quarter it’s good to take a look at your documentation and other customer-facing resources. The new year is a good time to do a larger evaluation of the direction and scope of your documentation.

Here are some questions to think about as you evaluate the state of your docs:

  • Does your documentation facilitate self-service?
  • How good is the search function?
  • Can customers and others submit feedback?
  • If your docs include comments, how is the moderation?
  • If you have a forum, how is the moderation?
  • Do the comment system and/or forum bring value above and beyond the documentation itself?
  • Is your documentation compatible with screen readers and other accessibility tools?
  • How well do you address multiple learning modalities? (Do you balance text, images, and videos?)
  • What does your updating process look like?
  • What does your doc creation process look like?
  • What process do you use to change documentation when a new release comes out?

There are many more things to consider, but this is a good list to start with. This is foundational work, the kind of work that isn’t glamorous but pays huge dividends in the long run. Make the time to add this kind of a documentation check to your documentation system and your customers will thank you many times over.

In 2021 Let's Stop Calling Customers "Users"

I really dislike how the software world talks about “users.” In any other context this word has pretty terrible connotations. (Drug users anyone?) It has become the standard way that nearly all software companies describe their customers.

Calling a customer a “user” dehumanizes them. At the far end of our development, sales, and marketing efforts are people with real lives and needs. We hope that they are willing to give us some of their hard-earned money in exchange for the software and services we provide. When we lose sight of the people we allow ourselves to make poor decisions, starting with design and continuing all the way down the line to service and support.

This year, in a year we all hope gives us a chance to be physically together with more humans, spend time with more humans, hug and handshake and eat together with more humans, let’s also try to remember that humans are the ones buying our software. We may not be able to learn all of their names or talk to them one by one. Calling them customers will help us remember their humanity.

What Is Customer Success?

The short answer: treating SaaS customers so they want to continue being a customer.

SaaS businesses have an interesting advantage over brick and mortar companies. Software doesn’t have physical costs and digital distribution is straightforward. Margins on SaaS software, particularly on subscription-based software, are great.

Customer Success is a new domain that emerged from the SaaS world in reaction to the scale and simplicity of the SaaS business model. Yes, you can sell software to a million people, but if that’s as far as your thought process goes you are in for some nasty surprises. Just because software is economical to produce and scales well, your customers are still human. The team that produces the software is also human. Your software will have problems and your customers will run into those problems and a million others you haven’t thought about. For customers to continue being customers, they need to have a good experience.

This concept, of reducing subscriber churn, is at the heart of Customer Success. Reducing churn means creating a great user experience, providing help when customers have problems, and doing all you can to delight them. It takes sales, support, product, design, marketing, and engineering working together to make this a reality. It’s hard work! The result of good Customer Success work is customers who continue to be customers, month after month, year after year.

If you aren’t striving for that then why are you making software?

Today I turned my ceiling fan to “winter mode”. I’m amazed at the difference it makes in my office. So cool when little things make a big difference.

What do you call the two huge grapes you find on the grape plate?

Quieting the Tumult Between Your Ears

Over the past year I’ve had a meditation practice. It’s one of those things that makes a noticeable difference when I practice consistently but is easy to forget about when I don’t. There have been months when I practiced daily, and stretches when I didn’t practice at all. Recently I’m trying to get back into the groove of consistent practice and it’s reminded me of an important truth: there is a lot of noise going on in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a confession of insanity or hearing voices. We all have noise going on in our head. The degree to which we recognize it for what it is can be an indicator of the strength of our mental muscles. Why? Just like our physical muscles become stronger through exercise, through practice and repetition we can learn to turn down the noise and control it.

A corollary to the truth that we all have noise in our heads is that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts may flit through your mind, but just because they appear in there doesn’t mean you put them there. Just because thoughts are in my head doesn’t mean that those thoughts are who I am. This is part of the human condition and learning to control the noise, the torrent of thoughts, is one of the important skills that we all need to learn.

During my practice today I felt like I was playing a word association game:

focus on the breath - that book Breath that I read last week was really good - I need to read more books - Hunt for Red October is one of my favorites - Sean Connery was in Red October, I’m sad he passed away - we’re all going to get Covid and die - why am I sitting here again? - where did that come from? so morbid - focus on the breath

Should I feel like a failure? Of course not. It certainly wasn’t a meditation session that I’ll win any medals for, but then again I’ll never win a medal for meditating. I think it’s more like one thread in a grand tapestry. If every thread is the same it’s going to make a boring tapestry. It’s the variety and variation that makes the whole interesting.

When you feel like the tumult and noise is too much, simply recognize that it likely is. Focus on your breath, appreciate the small victory of recognition, and know that your mental muscles have grown just a bit stronger.

Things my teenager says: “Is anyone going to fix this reactor with me????”

Learning a New Skill is Terrifying and Satisfying at the Same Time

The last few Wednesdays have been big days for me. I started hosted YouTube live broadcasts for SpiderOak. While I’ve done similar things before, making training videos, running a webinar, or recording audiobooks, I had never hosted a livestream. It is an exciting project to get started on, but terrifying at the same time. If you’re interested in taking a look at how the first one turned out, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpHoJ2V68xI

So how did it go? I’m pretty pleased. The number of attendees was in line with what I was hoping for, the presentation worked well, and I was able to start on time, end on time, and not have any technical glitches in the middle. Hooray!

The other side of the story is that with only 15 minutes left until start time, I wasn’t sure it would happen.

I spent a lot of time preparing the technology stack on my computer and the hardware in my office. I used the excellent mmhmm as the camera and presentation software. I have a green screen which attaches to the back of my chair so I can have a nice virtual background. I got out my Blue Yeti microphone and had it hooked up and ready to go so the audio would be decent. My slides and software to demonstrate was all loaded into mmhmm and I had practiced the presentation several times. With 30 minutes to go I was feeling great.

Then I went to YouTube and tried to start the stream in preparation for going live. No dice! When I scheduled the livestream, I chose the option to create it with an encoder instead of my webcam. Turns out once you’ve scheduled it, there’s no way to change that setting. YouTube’s documentation was pretty good, however, so I figured all I needed to do was install a software encoder, enter the correct settings, and I would be good to go. 20 minutes to go!

I installed three different software encoders, but couldn’t get them running. I had missing drivers for some, some preferred a different version of Mac than what I run, and others were just confusing. With 10 minutes until live, I found Stage Ten, got mmhmm set up as my streaming source, connected it to the YouTube account, and confirmed the stream was ready. Looking up at the clock, I had two minutes to spare. 😅

At 12:30 pm the livestream started on time. I’d been so busy trying to get everything set up that I didn’t have time to be nervous! That was the hidden gift in the whole adventure.

Had I known this was how the prep would go I don’t think I would have volunteered for the project. What a great learning experience it turned out to be! Here’s my big takeaway: if you take a leap of faith and work hard, great things can happen. You’re not guaranteed a happy ending, but the journey itself will make the experience worth it.

I’m so relieved to finally have a result in the election. I don’t look forward to the meltdown of 45 though. It’s not going to be pretty and could get dangerous.

Worst feeling ever: finding a single bolt on the floor and having no idea where it came from.

It’s been a week, and it’s not over yet. Today I turned to an old standby to lift my stooping spirits: Christmas Jazz. Yes, it’s way early for that kind of thing but it sure made me feel better. #mbnov

www.accuradio.com/search/Ho…

I’m always excited to vote, though I’ve never yet voted for a winning presidential candidate. Hoping to be astonished by tonight’s result! #mbnov

Hello Monday. You know, we don’t have to be enemies. Having you as a friend could be great. But if that’s gonna happen we’ve got to get one thing clear. Are you listening? Concentrate! Gah, I give up. You had too much candy over the weekend. #mbnov

The weather recently has been pretty dreary, but not today! Beautiful sun, amazing temperature. Just what we need after snow and grey ickiness last week. #mbnov

With all of the anger and angst surrounding the election, I was happy tonight to be reminded of the goodness of my neighbors. We’re all very different yet all get along. We need to take care of each other. Elections can bring change, but being good to each can too.

As we finished up getting flu shots in a drive through clinic, my wife remarked that the last few times we’ve been together in the car for an extended period of time have been for either Covid testing or getting shots. What a year 2020 has been.

Yesterday was a first for me. I ran a YouTube live at work and it went really pretty well. The mic was too hot so there’s some audio distortion, but otherwise I felt like it was successful. www.youtube.com/watch

The Value of Rituals

One of the joys of the pandemic has been the return of baseball. (Congrats to the Dodgers on their World Series win. We’ll get ‘em next year KC!) I’ve started to think a lot about my local team and some of the fun quirks of the game. All sports have superstitions and illogical practices, but baseball is bathed in them. Rally caps anyone?

One of my favorite young pitchers would always jump over the chalk lines on his way back to the dugout when an inning ended. It wasn’t that he simply didn’t step on the chalk line, he jumped over it so there was no chance that he would step on it accidentally.

Another favorite player adjusts his batting gloves between every pitch. Not every at bat or after every swing, but after every pitch. He pulls back the velcro, tightens it, then grips his bat and gets back into his stance. Thank goodness the MLB put rules in place about batters not leaving the batter’s box during their at bat. If not each of his at bats would take 10 minutes.

Perhaps my favorite quirk of baseball is the pre-game routine. There are pitchers who play long toss across the width of the outfield. There are position players who stretch in a certain order for a certain amount of time before they take batting practice. And of course there are managers and coaches who write their lineup cards in elaborate handwriting.

These rituals might seem strange, but they plan an important function. Pre-game rituals help players mentally prepare for the game. That might seem obvious, the need to get ready before you play, but playing sports at a high level requires players to have incredible consistency and focus. No matter what happened at home, during the drive to the game, or what personal issues a player is going through, in order to be successful during the game they need a way to be mentally and physically ready. That’s why successful players can be obsessive about their pre-game rituals. It’s one of the steps that takes them out of their normal life and places them in the mindset of competing and performing.

You and I may not be professional athletes, but we all have important work to do each day. Some of that work is likely hard, or boring, or not the kind of thing we want to do today. To be successful, to perform at a high level, we need to find our own rituals that prepare us mentally and physically for our work. Rituals and habits that help us set aside the other things going on in our life and that let us make our art, wherever type of art our work calls for.

Now that many knowledge workers work from home, this is even more important than before. You can only show up in your ratty pajamas to a full day of work so many times before our work starts to feel like a bad dream.

Take time to think about your rituals. Codify them, even if only in a simple way. For me, my morning starts with a hot cup of Yerba mate, reading RSS feeds, and arranging my desk. Then I review my calendar, make notes of to do items that I’ll need for each meeting, then I block out time for deep work and note what that work will be. Once that’s done, then I’ll open my work email and chat apps and start to go through the inboxes. Those two things are some of my least favorite tasks, but they are important for my work. By starting with things I enjoy (a hot drink and reading interesting articles), moving on to things that get me excited for the day (planning for meetings and setting aside time for projects I like), I’m ready to start tackling the things I don’t really like but need to do well on.

Find your rituals. Make then an important part of your day. Consistently do them, because they will lend consistency to your work and to your art.

This pandemic is a lesson in Stoicism for all of us

One of the most difficult parts of this pandemic is the feeling that someone needs to be blamed. I get this so much from my teenagers. They are angry, they aren’t sure who they should be angry at, and since we spend all day together in the same house they end up directing anger my way. Man, I wish it were all that simple. I wish just we could simply find who’s to blame and then this whole thing would go away.

But of course it’s not that simple. Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear or suddenly stop killing people. Logically we realize that microbes don’t care for our feelings. Our anger or sadness don’t affect them or their ability to spread. Nothing personal is going on between you and the virus. (Though sometimes I think Pres. Trump is acting as if the virus has personally offended him.) We get it! This isn’t a situation where blame helps.

The problem is that humans aren’t wired for logical, abstract thinking all the time. Each day is a struggle lately to remember that I’m an adult who understands things the way they actually are and I need to act like it. How can I expect my kids and their not-fully-developed brains to be able to make the leap that I struggle with most days? The answer, as unsatisfying as it is, is that I can’t expect them to. (Sigh.)

So what are we left with? This sucks. I don’t like it one bit. Looking on the sunny side got really old way back in May. I wish there was someone to blame for the whole mess.

The only solace I find is in taking actions within the frame of my control:

  • Go for a walk
  • Contact a friend and check in
  • Play with my (angsty) kids
  • Wear fuzzy slippers and warm vests
  • Show love to the people I love
  • Write long, meandering posts on the internet

Those things make me feel good. The nature of the unfair pandemic hasn’t changed, but rather than having it thrust on me I’m taking action within my sphere of influence. This is straight out of the Marcus Aurelius playbook:

You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

While some of us literally need beard oil, all of us need figurative beard oil from time to time. Call it 80/20, optimization, or a life hack; there are often little things that can make a big difference. adamtervort.com/2020/10/w…

We All Need Beard Oil Sometimes

For most people reading that title doesn’t make much sense. You only need beard oil if you have a beard, right? Yes, if we’re talking about literal beard oil. Luckily we’re talking about figurative beard oil, so this can still apply to everyone.

I started growing a beard last November, and I’ve kept it going in various states ever since. I’m a guy who has never had long hair so I didn’t have much experience with the difference hair products can make in your life. (I know, I know: cue the groaning from most of the guys reading this.) Beard oil is one of those miracle products that makes such a big difference it really does feel like magic.

One of the reasons many guys never grow a beard is because it itches and feels scratchy after a while. Unsurprisingly, this is skin irritation, but not for the reason you might think. The beard scruff isn’t causing the itching, it’s actually dry skin. Hair follicles on your face secrete oil which moisturizes your skin. If you have a beard, however, that oil moisturizes the beard and your skin is left without that natural oil. This causes beard itch, and can also lead to things like “beard-ruff”, dandruff from your beard. Not very comfortable or good looking. (I just love seeing snowstorms fall from my beard, don’t you?)

I was a few weeks into growing my beard and having a tough time with the itch. One of my coworkers, who has a magnificent beard, mentioned that beard oil is his secret weapon. I did some research and went out to get a bottle. Immediately after putting it on the itch quieted down. As long as I use beard oil every day or so, I never get beard itch.

Every area of our life and our work has the potential for small optimizations that make a big difference. Spend time to discover what they are, make a plan to implement them, and then evaluate the results. Not every optimization is worth the cost, and not every routine needs to change. There are some, however, that bring outsized value and can fundamentally change how we work. Look out for those and seize them when you find them.

In response to my question about the smell of burning food coming from the kitchen, here’s more of Things My Teenager Says: “It’s the burning passion in my heart!” (It was really a grilled cheese sandwich.) 🥪

Will You Do Your Duty? To me, this just about perfectly sums up the reasons why I vote. The candidates aren’t perfect, the world is mad, and I probably won’t like all of the results. But this action is mine, and by voting I get to take action towards the world I want.

Foundational Work is a Long Term Investment

My work at SpiderOak revolves around customers. My team handles customer support, account management, onboarding, and some technical aspects of our websites. Working with customers means a constant influx of work. There will always be questions, some big and some small, and they will always come at times when you don’t expect them.

This makes doing foundational work hard to schedule. If a server goes down or there’s a technical issue that affects customers, it means that we’ll be working full time to communicate and assist while the problem is solved. Those are busy times, but important times too.

Once in a while, everything seems to go right. No hard drives fail, the system runs as it should, problems that crop up are small and get solved quickly. When we’re lucky enough to have times like this we turn our focus to foundational work. This is the work of documentation, evaluation, professional development, and planning. In a perfect world we’d be able to consistently schedule all of these things, but at least we know that slow times mean we’ll have time for it.

Here’s an example of why this kind of work is so important. One member of our team decided to take on a project to create an interactive troubleshooting form. Customers with problems answered a series of questions and were given suggestions of how to fix their problem based on the answers. Some people that use the form still end up contacting our team, but more than 50% end up finding an answer and don’t contact us. In the three years we’ve used this interactive form, more than 3,000 customers found self help answers through it. This saved our team hundreds of hours and saved those customers a lot of time too. It’s a pretty good return on a few weeks of part time work.

When your work hits a calm patch, enjoy the break but also consider what foundational work you can do. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Take a professional development course. Read a book. Do some of the work that’s been put off for “someday” so that you’ll be able to start to reap the rewards now.

Had a bit of fun creating a “Now” page on my website. This is a great concept that Derek Sivers started a few years back. It’s a nice complement to an About page. adamtervort.com/now/

Now Page Updates

I’ve been a big fan of Derek Sivers for a long time. Years ago he added a “Now” page to his website as a way to update people on what he’s working on and how things are going. It really caught on and now there’s quite a movement of people adding /now to their website. I haven’t had a Now page for years, but added one today. You can see it here.

82 on Thursday, 12 on Tuesday. Looks like it’s officially fall in Kansas City! 🍃 🍁

Things my teenager says: “This rice is pretty good. Your rice making skills are pretty hit-or-miss. I’m not ungrateful, I’m just honest.”

So much here, not even sure how to unpack it.

Things my teenager says: 😑 (All of my teenagers have been very unhelpful the last few days and haven’t said anything funny at all. Booo! How’s a WFH dad supposed to have fun with three reasonable teenagers?)

Do I really need multiple pairs of glasses on my desk? I guess so. Add in the pair on my head and I’ve just about got two pairs per eyeball.

Things my teenager says: “I was more outstanding” (than my siblings).

We’re working on our humility still.

Things my teenager says: “I’ve already eaten MIIIIIINE.”

“2020 is like looking both ways as you cross the street and as you step off the curb you get hit by an airplane falling from the sky.” Via Herding Cats

Things my teenager says (to his brother): “You’re so kickable.” 🙄

Things my teenager says: SLURP SLURP SLURP “I feel like it tastes better when I smack my lips.”

Things my teenager says: “Sometimes we have jigglypuff battles.” Sometimes I also make up words and pretend like they mean something.

Things my teenager says: “I want to go out and do things that are new, fun, and exciting.” Me too buddy. Curse you 2020!

Fall is my favorite season. The morning chill in the air, the excitement when you get an unexpectedly warm, sunny afternoon. I even like pumpkin spice (at least a bit of it).

This year we can really use something to mark the passing of time. Welcome fall!

Watching an MLS game and saw their “25 years strong” slogan. I remember the first MLS season really well. (Watching the KC Wizards, today known as Sporting KC, at the KC Chiefs stadium was a blast.)

Makes me feel a bit old 😂

Very excited that my next read is here: Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee 📚

Things my teenager says: “You’re gonna have to take me to another city because I’m not just going to sit at home and mope.” #TeenagerSayings

How far we’ve come with wearing masks

Eight years ago my family moved from Taiwan to my hometown of KC. The first semester of school my son, a second grader, caught a cold so we sent him to school with a mask. This was a normal part of going to school in Taiwan: when you’re sick you wear a mask so you don’t get other people sick.

About an hour after the start of school I received a call from the school nurse. She said a number of staff and teachers had contacted her about my son, asking what kind of illness he had. Does he have cancer? No, I replied, just a common cold. The nurse told me that because his mask was making others uncomfortable, she wanted to have him take it off. She promised to teach him how to cough into his elbow.

To say that we were floored by this is an understatement. Of all the people in the school, surely the nurse would be the one to understand the value of a mask, yet she was the one prioritizing feelings over public health.

At breakfast today we discussed this experience in the context of how far we’ve come as a community and as a country. Our county health department released a mask mandate a few months back, and though there are many people who complain, I’ve only seen two people break the mandate. (One of them was a guy wearing a pith helmet with a mosquito net in the grocery store. He looked a bit crazy but seemed very pleased with himself.)

We’ve come a long way. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve changed so much already and I’m happy we’re heading in the right direction.

In my state, most of those absentee and mail-in ballots need to be notarized. I’m become a notary public so I can help neighbors and community members who need it submit their ballots. Anyone have experience with this or suggestions? (My training / application are done.)

I’ve been setting up an Android phone for work and I’m surprised how much I have enjoyed it. Some very cool things that iOS doesn’t have that I could see myself really enjoying.

The last embers of the fire. We have enjoyed spending time outside with our portable fire pit this summer. So nice to get outdoors and stare into the flames while talking. Something we miss when we’re indoors on screens.

There is Competition, But Not as Much as You Think

I had an interesting conversation with my younger brother the other day. He is a college student who has the beginnings of a nice career playing jazz music. Unfortunately the pandemic has a huge negative influence on musicians who play live music, including my brother. He’s been looking for another job to help fill the gap until his live gigs restart.

He had an interview scheduled for the afternoon, then in the morning an opportunity related to his music came up. He called to ask my opinion of what he should do. Keep the interview appointment and miss out on the music? Go do the music and not get the job? I saw a third option: call the interviewer, explain that something had come up and ask if it would be possible to reschedule. He did that and everything worked out wonderfully. He got to take advantage of the musical opportunity and still had an interview a few days later.

It sometimes feels like the world is filled with competition, and on some level that is true. There are a lot of people in the world and many of them want the same things you do. When it comes down to details, however, it’s amazing how few people there are that try hard and go the extra mile, especially when looking for a job. They spellcheck their resume, are polite and punctual, and try to show their potential value to the company. In my experience with hiring, there may be hundreds of people who apply but only a handful do the things to merit serious consideration. Those few people are your competition. By simply being a functioning adult you can eliminate the majority of your competition. By showing that you are responsible and considerate, the type of person that others would like to work with, you’re almost to the final round.

There will always be competition for anything worthwhile, but don’t let the idea of competition stop you from competing. Be the kind of person you would want to hire yourself and you’ll likely find that your competitive field gets much smaller very quickly.

Hat tip to Brett McKay at Art of Manliness for the inspiration.

We Don't Use Email Here

In a meeting today one of my coworkers said “We don’t use email.” Wouldn’t it be great if something like that was true? Email can be pretty terrible at times, especially if it balloons to take up time that you would rather spend on other things.

The problem is that even at a tech company, we still use email. Not everyone uses it, but if you work directly with people outside the company it’s almost impossible not to use it. Many internal tasks (like calendaring and internal app notifications) still rely on email.

While I have had my share of days where I fantasized about the cruel, painful death I’d like to inflict on it, email is still useful for a lot of things. Since I’m working from home, email is one of the breakwaters I use to separate my work life from my personal life. I don’t have an office phone system and I would much rather give out my work email than my personal cell phone number. Score one for email.

Sometimes real-time chat programs (like Slack or Semaphor) aren’t the right tool for the job. If I need immediate input from someone it works great. If a conversation is going on that I want to participate in it’s also great. If I have longer form thoughts that I want to share then it’s not a great fit. (Remember office memos? They do serve a purpose sometimes.) Yes, I could pin a couple of paragraphs of text to the top of a channel, but sending them as an email means no one will receive a notification, it won’t get buried by subsequent conversations in chat and people know that because I sent it by email I don’t expect an immediate answer. It’s like extending an invitation for a more thought-out answer.

My point here isn’t to blame or shame people because they like different tools than I do. It’s important to choose the most appropriate tool for the job. Sometimes that even means crusty old email.

The last two nights we’ve watched Pride and Prejudice and Little Women as a family. Such great movies! I remember in high school doing everything I could to not read Jane Austin. I was such a dork.

A Picnic in the Park

Since COVID-19 turned our world upside down, many of the things that were very normal have now become things we have to take great care in doing. Two of my kids have birthdays in July. In years past their birthday parties were at our community pool with a large group of friends and a stack of pizzas to share. This year those kinds of parties aren’t what we want to do. Planning a birthday party during a pandemic is a challenge!

We ended up having the party at a local park. Each party had only three or four friends and involved masks and hand sanitizer. I know it shouldn’t have been much fun, but it was great to see how quickly the kids adapted. We grilled burgers and hot dogs, played horseshoes, and had water fights. (It helped that it’s very hot and the wind was strong. Being outside with good air circulation helped calm a lot of my fears about virus transmission.)

Finding some normalcy is important. Having fun with people you love is important. Protecting each other is important. Spending some time in the park this week has helped me a lot.

Spent the last week or so porting my website from Hugo back to WordPress with a static site deploy. It’s been a fun challenge and I love that I can have the convenience of the WordPress backend with the speed and security of a static site on Netlify. adamtervort.com

My brother raved about his blue light blocking glasses, so we got pairs for everyone in our family. I’m surprised that I can tell a difference after a day or work wearing them vs. a day without.

Spilling a drink on a mechanical keyboard is much less of a crisis than spilling one on a laptop keyboard. Who said good things don’t happen on Mondays?

Baseball is built on hope

You know what I love about baseball? It’s a game of hope. Why did I keep watching when my team is down by 7 runs in the 5th inning? Because anything can happen. Now it’s the middle of the seventh and we’ve scored three runs. Will we win? Probably not. Will it be fun to watch them try? Absolutely!

Think of it: baseball is a game where successful hitters fail two out of three times. If you succeed four out of ten times you’re one of the greats! That’s crazy.

Why do we keep watching when there’s so much failure? Because there’s always a chance for success, and success in baseball is so exciting.

There are probably some great lessons here, but I need to go back to watching and hoping that the Royals can mount a comeback and win the game. You never know! They just scored another run. Talk about a reason to hope! ⚾️🙌😁

Two days a row with baseball. I’m a happy guy. Here’s my favorite quote on the Royals win today:

The Royals won their first game of the season. It’s not ideal that it happened so late in the year but they’re currently tied for first place in the division and it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

😂

www.royalsreview.com/2020/7/25…

The MLB season opens today. The Royals play their first game tomorrow. I’m so happy😁⚾️🙌

Tonight I typed on my laptop keyboard for the first time after a week of using a mechanical keyboard. Wow, it feels terrible to type on. I don’t think I would have noticed how much better the mechanical is unless I came back to use something else. ⌨️

Experience Improves Systems

Setting up systems is one of the quickest ways to improve efficiency. Experience within a system shows us how to improve the system itself.

A few weeks ago I went to a community organization to pick up some supplies. Their offering was well received and a lot of people showed up around the same time as me. It was terrible. The line was long, the service was slow, and everyone was grumpy. I felt bad for the volunteers. They were doing their best to help everyone, but they really didn’t know how to handle the situation and it made the experience terrible for everyone involved.

I debated whether or not I would go back the next week, but decided to give it another try. The second week was much better. They learned from the mistakes of the first week and had a much more robust and efficient system set up. The wait time was reduced, time in line was used for tasks that would speed up time at the front of the line, and the volunteers were better trained.

By the fourth week it was a well oiled machine. One of the fun things to watch was how the experienced volunteers trained the new ones. Unlike the first week when everyone was new and there was frantic discussion and on-the-fly changes, now the experienced volunteers trained the new ones on how the system works and why. The questions new volunteers asked were answered from a place of experience.

In our work, creating systems improves processes and efficiency. But don’t overlook the value of tweaking the system based on experiences within it. Those small changes can be the difference between a good customer experience and a great one.

“The Battle Against Them Would Be in the Shade and Not in the Sun”

One of the most difficult things for me is starting something new. I love learning new things. Researching, comparing, reading about others who have done the same thing, I enjoy all of it. What’s hard is when it’s time to stop reading and start doing.

Here are a few methods I’ve found that can help.

Reframing the situation can make something difficult look less daunting. This takes a good sense of humor many times, but can help more than you’d think.

One of my favorite stories is of the Spartan army at Thermopylae. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded this scene:

(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

Yes, the battle was hopeless. Yes, they were facing certain death. But at least they could fight in the shade. You can imagine the cold laughter that followed Dienekes’s quip, but that laughter also broke up the fear in many hearts. Reframe the situation and see if things don’t look better than you thought.

The second method is to remove alternatives. Boredom can be a powerful motivator, though it’s something most of us don’t experience often enough. When we remove more pleasant activities it’s easier to get started on the hard ones.

In his autobiography, Langston Hughes tells the story of a trip from New York to Africa on a ship. The first night of the trip he threw all of his books overboard.

Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea—all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read….

You see, books had been happening to me. Now the books were cast off back there somewhere in the churn of spray and night behind the propeller. I was glad there were gone.

With no books around to read, Hughes started to write as never before. It was the true beginning of his writing career.

When it’s hard to start, that means the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Nothing good ever comes without resistance. Fight through the resistance, however you can, and as you get to work you’ll know more from the doing than you could from just studying and preparing.

We Will Only Break Through Together

During the 10 years I lived in Taiwan, I learned a lot of things that surprised me. One that’s applicable to our lives now is that wearing masks can become a normal, accepted part of life. The thing about wearing a mask, and what helped me be comfortable with it, is that it’s really about others rather than about you.

This was really impressed on me was when my younger son was hospitalized with the H1N1 flu. He went from being a kid with a light fever to a very sick little boy in a short time. We were taking him to our family doctor’s office (for the second time that day) when he had a seizure. Holding him while he seized was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. The doctor was great and got him stabilized, then sent us off to the hospital.

In the ER my son tested positive for H1N1 and was admitted. (The quality of the care he received in the nationalized healthcare system was amazing, but a topic for a different post.) The morning after he was admitted a nurse woke me up to check in and then she handed me a mask. I was surprised, and asked her why. “You’ve probably already been exposed, so it’s important for everyone around you that you wear a mask.”

I’ll admit that I had never thought about diseases in that way. My concern was always for myself and my immediate family, and less for the nebulous “others out there.” Yet in Taiwan I saw over and over again how wearing a mask to protect the people around you was normal and encouraged. Once I understood this my attitude completely changed.

Have the sniffles? On with the mask until they are gone. Visiting an older relative? Put on the mask. As a teacher I appreciated that wearing a mask helped to keep the kids in my classes from getting too close (and this meant I tended to get sick less). On the subway or the bus when I saw someone wearing a mask my immediate reaction was gratitude. That person is taking care of me by wearing a mask.

Wearing a mask puts your community above your own needs. It’s natural that this became a common practice in East Asia because family and community are so important there. For people in the US, the emphasis seems to be on personal liberty and freedom. This is a striking difference in many ways (again, a topic for another post), but during this pandemic we Americans need to learn from the Asians. The only way for the pandemic to ease, for infections and deaths to go down, is if we take care of one another. Wearing masks and social distancing are the two easiest ways to do that. Simply wearing a mask sends a signal that you care about the people around you.

In the early days of the pandemic there were many messages going around that masks don’t protect you from the virus. If you look at the data, that’s probably a true statement. Cloth masks are not a completely effective defense against airborne viruses. What a simple cloth mask will do with great efficiency is stop you from spreading disease.

We can beat this together. We just need to put our community first, our neighbors first, our family first. It’s the only and best way to break through this pandemic. We can do it. And we’ll come out stronger on the other side if we do.

Seek Out Time for Deep Work

If you’ve never read it, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work should be on your reading list. It proposes a radical philosophy of work: you need time to concentrate deeply on tasks in order to do work that matters.

Recently on his blog Cal mentioned that Outlook, the email and calendaring app, has added a focus plan option where you can “establish a daily focus time routine.” If you use Outlook as part of an Office365 subscription, Microsoft’s AI service will try and schedule focus time for you based on your availability.

You don’t need an AI assistant to do this for you. If your working hours revolve around a calendar, simply schedule time for deep work. At SpiderOak, we have an open culture of booking meetings based on calendar availability. If someone has a block of time marked as Unavailable, then meetings won’t be scheduled during that time. Creating a block of focus time is as simple as scheduling it on your calendar.

I’ve also seen examples of people scheduling their meetings for just the afternoon so that they can have the morning for deep work (or vice versa). This won’t work for everyone, but through basic daily planning and a bit of support from your coworkers you can carve out a time each day that’s dedicated to deeper, more foundational work.

Investing in work like this pays huge long-term dividends. It may be months or years before you see the gains, but they will come. Make time for it!

Read Why Nerds are Unpopular and sent it to my three teenagers to read. What an article. It’s making me think long and hard about the education system in the US. If there was ever a time to make a big change this is it.

What alternatives to “normal” school should we look at?

Last night’s dinner had all kinds of things from our garden: Thai basil with the chicken (three cups chicken FTW!), sweet potato greens, Chinese celery, and one giant banana pepper. So cool that our garden experiment is producing real food. 🥒

Focus Your Windows to Block Distractions

On my computer I love the option to have a window take up the entire screen. Not just to maximize it to cover the desktop, but filling the entire screen. As I write this I have only one window visible, no menu bar or icons in the dock. Do Not Disturb mode is enabled. Right now this computer is only capable of doing one thing.

Knowledge work, the kind of work many of us do all day, revolves around writing. For hundreds of years writing was a pretty simple task. Whether it was a letter, a recipe, or a novel, the person writing had a pen and some paper. The paper could be a loose sheet or part of a bound book. The pen could be a fountain pen or a quill or a ballpoint. The essential ingredients for this kind of work were simple.

Typewriters were a new tool in knowledge work, but the essential task was the same. One sheet of paper and one typewriter. The writer pressed on keys, letters and symbols were imprinted on the paper, and that was that. It wasn’t very efficient and if you made a mistake it meant some sort of manual correction, but pen and paper had the same challenge.

Computers and mobile devices changed this. Fixing mistakes was so easy! Press a key and delete the mistake. Sharing the work was much easier too. Email meant sending your work cost nothing and it arrived in an instant.

Technology made things better in so many ways, but it has also changed the equation. Rather than facilitating the basic tasks we do, it actively tries to take our attention away from that task. How many of your phone’s notifications do you really need to see right now? How often does a computer ping take you away from something you are doing in real life?

I don’t know that I have very many answers, but I know that when my focus is on only one thing at a time I get much more done.

It seems counter intuitive to work this way. Computers have trained us all to try and multi-task. They call out that this is the only way to do knowledge work. It must be right!

Remember that long before computers dinged for every email and pinged for every new YouTube video, people like you worked by single tasking. You don’t have to revert to pen and paper or a typewriter to get the benefits that kind of work brings.

Since March my family gets together for a weekly Zoom call. It’s one of the highlights of the week to see each other, laugh together, and catch up.

One good thing that came out of the pandemic!

Giving a first real go at using a mechanical keyboard. I love typing on a typewriter for the feel and noise, and the keyboard I’m using has both. (The little lights that light up as I type are pretty fun too.) Cherry MX Blue switches. Very clacky.

The Applied Physics of Efficient Work

Sometimes we forget how powerful small actions can be. Each time the seasons change and it’s time to switch from heat to cool (or cool to heat) I’m reminded of a simple lesson in applied physics.

We moved into our house in December. The heat in our house worked fine. When summer came and we were ready to switch on the air conditioner, I couldn’t figure out why the upper floor of our house was so hot. It seemed that no matter how low I turned the thermostat, the upper floor just wouldn’t cool down.

I googled it and learned a trick that solved my problem. Hot air rises, so in the winter you should close all of the vents on the upper floor of your house and open the vents on the lower floor. This allows the lower floor to get heat, then the hot air rises and heats the upper floor. In the summer the opposite is true. Cool air falls, so the vents should be open on the upper floor and closed on the lower floor. The air cools the upper floor, then naturally falls to cool the lower floor.

There aren’t hacks for everything in life, but there are principles that can be applied across domains to make our lives easier. Just as cooling the upper floor of my house was hard when the downstairs vents were open, doing work with the wrong tools and in the wrong way makes it harder than it needs to be.

For example, when you’re writing an email it makes no sense to use a smartphone. Yes, there are some people who need to have email on their phone for work, but not most of us. Save your email for a computer with a keyboard. This has the dual benefit of making you more effective at processing your email and sending useful replies, and saves you from constantly checking email on your phone or receiving notifications.

Removing email from my phone was something that made a huge difference to to my happiness and my productivity. Even if this isn’t something that will directly apply to the work you do, you can find similar applications of this principle in the work you can do. Look for ways to affect a large improvement from a small change.

You’re Not the First Person to Think of This

That’s actually a very comforting statement.

It can be discouraging to think that you aren’t totally unique, but knowing that someone else has had the same idea as you means a few more things:

  • This idea is important enough that others are thinking about it
  • Someone out there can help you extend on this idea (because they already have)
  • In the future you can help someone else who thinks of this

Being the first or the original just isn’t that important. Understanding that your ideas build on the work of others will help you to take them farther than you might otherwise have had the ability too.

Learn from and acknowledge the thinkers that came before you. Pay it forward to the thinkers who’ll come after you.

The local movie theater (B&B) has reopened and our family decided to go and see one of the Star Wars movies. I was so impressed with the precautions they took, the way the experience was set up.

We can do this! We can be careful and still have normalcy.

Starting Can Be the Hardest Part

Recently I’ve seen a trend in my life: it’s hard to get things done. Doing the little things that add up over time seems much harder than before. None of these things are new or difficult. I’m talking about working out, writing, meditating, or reading.

As I’ve pondered why, the common thread I see is trouble getting started. The things I want to do are easy. I’ve done them all before, most many times. Once I start a workout I have no problem completing it. I enjoy writing once I start. The stumbling block is just getting going.

I don’t think I’m alone. 2020 has done a number on all of us in one way or another. At some point, however, we need to reestablish a new normal. That can be painful. Humans have an amazing ability to avoid pain. My goal for July is to push past avoiding pain and establish a new rhythm. To find my new normal despite discomfort.

I believe that one of the keys to success is daily actions. Don’t let the fear or discomfort of starting hold you back from gaining the long term benefits they will bring.

Just back from a couple of days of camping and spending time on a river. Amazing how you can go years without thinking “What I really need is a kayak,” and then think it over and over again for two days straight.

Also nature is wonderful. 🌲🌳🌿

Ah humidity! In the summer you make outdoor work so much more fun. Not only do I need to take multiple showers each day, I never feel fully dry after each one. Thanks for that.

Parenting is a Marathon

This morning I listened as my son sat at the piano and played classical music. He’s 13, quite a talented pianist, and has come as far as he has because of great work ethic. But part of his success comes from the encouragement of his parents too.

My wife isn’t a musician herself, but she knows that success in any field only comes from practice. She has been the dominant force in getting all of our kids to practice their instruments. (And their math, and their science, and their athletics.) I spent a few years as a professional musician and am a helpful person to have around to help them too.

It can be a slog to get kids to practice their music. At times I have worried that our pushing and insistence to practice would harm our relationship. So far it hasn’t, and it’s created some amazing moments for the kids (getting first chair in a district orchestra, performing in a real jazz club, winning awards at festivals) as well as for us as parents.

Listening to my son sit at the piano, of his own accord, and play real classical pieces that he’s never practiced before but can play all on his own was amazing. He doesn’t know it, but that half hour of playing paid me back for many years of effort.

It’s kind of like a relief station on the side of the road in the middle of a marathon. The race is still a long one, but for now, in this moment, it feels really good.

The Magic of PTO

I started working at SpiderOak back before we had an HR department or many formal company policies. Most of us were contractors. Since we didn’t have other benefits, we had “unlimited time off.” (This was pretty popular in the startup world back then.) The idea is great; take as much time as you need! The thing the company values is you getting your work done, not counting your hours at work. In practice I found that to be true. I was almost never asked to track hours or account for my time. As far as taking time off, I was also never told I could not take time off. But no one ever took much time off.

It’s fine to say that everyone can have as much time off as they want or need, but everyone in my department ended up taking very little because we felt guilty. Staffing was tight, as it tends to be at startups, and me taking time off means my colleagues need to cover for me.

One magical day a few years later, when we were all full time employees with benefits and health care, we started to have a more formalized HR policy with Paid Time Off limits and the ability to roll over two weeks of vacation time from one year to the next. When we had clear limits on how much time we were allowed to take and a clear “use it or lose it” policy, everyone started to take more time off. Not only that, we stopped feeling guilty about it. Everyone knew how much time off they had, it was easy to put in for vacation and sick days, and it was also easy to see who was out of the office across the company. This was huge! I no longer needed to wonder when a coworker in another department would return from vacation. I simply had to check the PTO system.

During the last few months, having a system like this in place has been a lifesaver. Everyone is feeling more stress than normal. It’s important to take time off, to recharge, and to step away from work even if we’re not able to get too far away from the space that we work from home in. I’m grateful to be at a company where we have normalized the PTO process and that employees are encouraged to take time off.

Use the time you need to take care of yourself. If you get paid time off, take advantage of this great benefit.

Far from Commonplace Fathers

Fatherhood is one of the most difficult and noble acts in a man’s life. Not every man has the chance to be a biological father, but any man can act as like a father to the young men and women around him. Fathers are vital, on both a personal and a community level.

As a father of three, this is a bit terrifying. I worry that I will fall short or miss an important moment in my kids’ lives. These fears are natural. Rather than focusing on big moments, which we don’t know are coming until they’ve already arrived, we should focus on being great at small things that make huge difference when compounded over time.

This is one of the lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from my father. He is a great man who has always excelled at this. Most of the significant memories I have with him came in common moments as a result of years of consistent effort.

In The Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield tells the story of the 300 Spartans who fought at Thermopylae. It was a suicide mission, but one that gave the rest of Greece time and motivation to defeat the Persian invasion. Here’s one of my favorite passages (emphasis is mine):

Nothing fires the warrior’s heart more with courage than to find himself and his comrades at the point of annihilation, at the brink of being routed and overrun, and then to dredge not merely from one’s own bowels or guts but from one’s own discipline and training the presence of mind not to panic, not to yield to the possession of despair, but instead to complete those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior: to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions. Not only to achieve this for oneself alone, as Achilles or the solo champions of yore, but to do it as part of a unit, to feel about oneself one’s brothers-in-arms, in an instance like this of chaos and disorder, comrades whom one doesn’t even know, with whom one has never trained; to feel them filling the spaces alongside him, from spear side and shield side, fore and rear, to behold one’s comrades likewise rallying, not in a frenzy of mad possession-driven abandon, but with order and self-composure, each man knowing his role and rising to it, drawing strength from him as he draws it from them; the warrior in these moments finds himself lifted as if by the hand of a god.

We need fathers in society to step to the plate and be men of influence. Not in public, flashy ways, but in quiet, consistent ways. We need fathers that “perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.” Resolve to be one of those fathers!

And thanks, Dad, for being this kind of man.

Things Move a Little Slower Here

When I was 20 I moved from Kansas City to Taipei, Taiwan to start two years of missionary service. That was the first time I had ever lived in a big city. Getting used to the furious pace of life and the sheer number of people was hard.

Three months later I moved from Taipei to Taidong. Taidong may be the biggest city in its part of the island, but it felt very small compared to Taipei.

The first week there I had several conversations that went like this:

Me: We would like to come visit you and share a message.
Other Person: That sounds fine. Tomorrow works for me.
Me: Tomorrow? Great! What time tomorrow?
Other Person: Afternoon.
Me: What time in the afternoon?
Other Person: In the afternoon. Whenever you come. Things move a little slower here.

It took a while to slow down and relax. Eventually I grew to love the slower pace of life and the way people there thought about time.

While we are living under stay-at-home orders and practicing physical distancing, you may feel some of those same uncomfortable feelings I felt in Taidong. Our schedules are suddenly clear, our appointment books empty, and our extra curricular schedule blank. Suddenly “things move a little slower here” too!

This is a grand chance. We have time for reflection, pondering, and deep thinking, but only if we resist the urge to fill our days with “stuff.” Many people are calling for this to be a time to Get Things Done. I think this is a time to relearn how to be bored.

The magic of creativity and the ability to do deep work comes when we have mental space. Don’t squander this chance to get reacquainted with (or to learn for the first time) what it feels like to live a little slower.

The Right Way is the Hard Way

Worthwhile pursuits are hard. Work worth doing involves struggle. This is one of the lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life.

This afternoon I saw a perfect example of this. We had a small, Friday afternoon emergency at work. A customer needed a very specific data set that I knew was in our database but that I didn’t know how to retrieve. A coworker stepped up and saved the day.

She has been studying a monster book called SQL for Mere Mortals (public library). This is not light reading. It’s the kind of book you should never read while laying on your back—if you fall asleep and it drops on your face it’ll break your nose. I know studying it has been a chore.

She crafted a query that gave us exactly what we needed. The hard work she’s been putting in paid off.

In a recent interview Jerry Seinfeld said “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Embracing hard work and the focus needed to do hard work is unusual. Most people don’t work this way. But if we want to accomplish great things it’s the right path.

Life, Filled to the Brim with Experiences

I’ve been thinking recently about how simple situations and actions make for wonderful memories. A fond memory from the time when my kids were young was an evening when my wife made rose tea.

We had a typical day with three young children. This particular day they were energetic kids who tore through the house, asked a million questions, and did “kid things” that exhausted us. (A normal day!)

After we won the bedtime battle and all three were asleep, my wife and I sat together on the couch. It was a cool evening, unusual for that time of year. After making tea, we sat together silently sipping and enjoying the calm. I had a feeling of great contentment. Yes, we had three kids and all of the stress that comes with being parents and adults, but we were safe, healthy, and had each other. Eventually my wife smiled and asked “would you like another cup?” A perfect ending to an ordinary day.

The world is crazy right now. Things we have always been able to depend on are gone or delayed. We must cope with much that is unknown and unknowable. In the midst of this, we have a unique chance to create moments that can shape our life for years to come.

Just like that night with the rose tea, we can create moments and memories that will fuel us for years to come. Don’t underestimate the power of small, meaningful moments.

Use this time of physical distancing as a chance to more fully connect with people in your life. Start new traditions, try new things, and most importantly recognize and remember the moments that touch you.

A Poem called Pandemic and other thoughts

I haven’t written much this month. With everything going on in the world, taking the time to write a post each day seemed almost self absorbed. I wanted to keep my family close and focus on helping them and others in my community. This week I’ve started to feel that our new, stay-at-home normal has reached the point of equilibrium and I have some mental space to start writing again.

What I have been doing a lot this month is reading. Sites like Brain PickingsRaptitudeBarking up the Wrong Tree, and Farnam Street have helped a lot. I hope something of what I write helps others in the way these writers (and many others) have helped me.


Steven Pressfield shared this excellent poem by Lynn Ungar. It’s so good I want to pass it along to you. I hope during this time of disruption we can find positive change as we reach out to each other with our hearts.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20


Chris Shephard put together a beautiful virtual choir version of the poem with music by Martin Sedek.

The Joy of Morning Walks

Walking is such a natural act, but many people don’t do much of it. This isn’t (necessarily) because we’re lazy. Some places aren’t well situated for frequent walking. If that’s true for you it’s still worth creating the time to walk. Walking without music, podcasts, or headphones provides a perfect environment for inspiration.

This morning it was 37ºF (3ºC) when I started walking. It took a few minutes for my joints to warm up, then everything else did too. Listening to the birds, watching the squirrels, and saying hello to fellow walkers took up a bit of the walk, but most of the time was calm and quiet.

I planned for a department meetup. Marketing ideas bubbled and stewed. Concepts from a book resurfaced with ways to apply them.

As the sun came out it warmed everything up nicely. I watched a dog play in a creek, saw a squirrel make an impossible jump, and even ran across some deer.

By the time I received my first notification on my phone the day was planned and it was time to turn around and head for work.

So much of our life is spent rushing. Make time for a walk. When you have uninterrupted time to think amazing things happen.

Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth by Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig is one of the greatest players in the history of baseball. He had a career .340 batting average, and still has the highest ratio of runs scored plus runs batted in per 100 plate appearances (35.08) and per 100 games (156.7) among Hall of Fame players. His record of 2,130 consecutive games played eared him the nickname “The Iron Horse.”

He was diagnosed with ALS on June 19, 1939, his 36th birthday. This speech was given on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

Gratitude for Mentors is Repaid through Mentoring Others

One of the delightful surprises of my career has been mentors. I’m grateful that people have reached out and taken an interest in me. If life lessons only came through our own mistakes we would be miserable. Having a mentor to listen, give suggestions, and encourage based on their life experience is priceless.

Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.
John C. Crosby

I have been thinking about how to thank these people. I can’t afford gold watches.😉 I think the best thank you is to “pay it forward” through mentoring others.

A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.
Anonymous

Here are my invitations to you:

  • Remember the mentors and teachers who have changed your life. If appropriate, reach out to thank them.
  • Decide how you can become a mentor to someone in your circle of influence.

This doesn’t have to be formal. Look around for someone who has potential and can benefit from the things you have learned and the people you know. Make a plan to start sharing those things.

Your mentors likely had mentors of their own they told you about. One of the greatest gifts I was given through a mentor was an introduction to the writing of his mentor.

The best way a mentor can prepare another leader is to expose him or her to other great people.
John C. Maxwell

Thank you for that and everything else CS.

Personal Renewal by John W. Gardner

John W. Gardner was an activist and author who served in the Johnson administration as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. During his term he helped launch medicare. He also presided over the launch of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which would later help form PBS and NPR.

This speech was delivered to McKinsey & Company in Phoenix, Arizona on November 10, 1990.

This transcript was originally published on PBS.org

Speech Transcript

I’m going to talk about “Self-Renewal.” One of your most fundamental tasks is the renewal of the organizations you serve, and that usually includes persuading the top officers to accomplish a certain amount of self-renewal. But to help you think about others is not my primary mission this morning. I want to help you think about yourselves.

I take that mission very seriously, and I’ve written out what I have to say because I want every sentence to hit its target. I know a good deal about the kind of work you do and know how demanding it is. But I’m not going to talk about the special problems of your kind of career; I’m going to talk about some basic problems of the life cycle that will surely hit you if you’re not ready for them.

I once wrote a book called “Self-Renewal” that deals with the decay and renewal of societies, organizations and individuals. I explored the question of why civilizations die and how they sometimes renew themselves, and the puzzle of why some men and women go to seed while others remain vital all of their lives. It’s the latter question that I shall deal with at this time. I know that you as an individual are not going to seed. But the person seated on your right may be in fairly serious danger.

Not long ago, I read a splendid article on barnacles. I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the focus of my reading interests. Sometimes days go by without my reading about barnacles, much less remembering what I read. But this article had an unforgettable opening paragraph. “The barnacle” the author explained “is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides.. . it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock..” End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.

We’ve all seen men and women, even ones in fortunate circumstances with responsible positions who seem to run out of steam in midcareer.

One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons. Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. It happens. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim. You’ve known such people — feeling secretly defeated, maybe somewhat sour and cynical, or perhaps just vaguely dispirited. Or maybe they just ran so hard for so long that somewhere along the line they forgot what it was they were running for.

I’m not talking about people who fail to get to the top in achievement. We can’t all get to the top, and that isn’t the point of life anyway. I’m talking about people who — no matter how busy they seem to be — have stopped learning or growing. Many of them are just going through the motions. I don’t deride that. Life is hard. Just to keep on keeping on is sometimes an act of courage. But I do worry about men and women functioning far below the level of their potential.

We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit. Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Someone said to me the other day “How can I be so bored when I’m so busy?” And I said “Let me count the ways.” Logan Pearsall Smith said that boredom can rise to the level of a mystical experience, and if that’s true I know some very busy middle level executives who are among the great mystics of all time.

We can’t write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves –are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits. A famous French writer said “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.” I could without any trouble name a half of a dozen national figures resident in Washington, D.C., whom you would recognize, and could tell you roughly the year their clock stopped. I won’t do it because I still have to deal with them periodically.

I’ve watched a lot of mid-career people, and Yogi Berra says you can observe a lot just by watching. I’ve concluded that most people enjoy learning and growing. And many are dearly troubled by the self-assessments of mid-career.

Such self-assessments are no great problem at your age. You’re young and moving up. The drama of your own rise is enough. But when you reach middle age, when your energies aren’t what they used to be, then you’ll begin to wonder what it all added up to; you’ll begin to look for the figure in the carpet of your life. I have some simple advice for you when you begin that process. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Look ahead. Someone said that “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” And above all don’t imagine that the story is over. Life has a lot of chapters.

If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures. At almost any age. You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically. I know some pretty successful people who feel that that just isn’t possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don’t really know that. Life takes unexpected turns.

I said in my book, “Self-Renewal,” that we build our own prisons and serve as our own jail-keepers. I no longer completely agree with that. I still think we’re our own jailkeepers, but I’ve concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us — and self images — that hold us captive for a long time. The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past — the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure — but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable. As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest, said “You never conquer the mountain, You only conquer yourself.”

The more I see of human lives, the more I believe the business of growing up is much longer drawn out than we pretend. If we achieve it in our 30’s, even our 40s, we’re doing well. To those of you who are parents of teenagers, I can only say “Sorry about that.”

There’s a myth that learning is for young people. But as the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The middle years are great, great learning years. Even the years past the middle years. I took on a new job after my 77th birthday — and I’m still learning.

Learn all your life. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes, When you hit a spell of trouble, ask “What is it trying to teach me?” The lessons aren’t always happy ones, but they keep coming. It isn’t a bad idea to pause occasionally for an inward look. By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.

We learn from our jobs, from our friends and families. We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen). We learn by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by bearing with the things we can’t change, by taking risks.

The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You leant not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.

You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

Those are things that are hard to learn early in life, As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand. As Norman Douglas said “There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass through the fire.’

You come to terms with yourself. You finally grasp what S. N. Behrman meant when he said “At the end of every road you meet yourself.” You may not get rid of all of your hang-ups, but you learn to control them to the point that you can function productively and not hurt others.

You learn the arts of mutual dependence, meeting the needs of loved ones and letting yourself need them. You can even be unaffected — a quality that often takes years to acquire. You can achieve the simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

You come to understand your impact on others. It’s interesting that even in the first year of life you learn the impact that a variety of others have on you, but as late as middle age many people have a very imperfect understanding of the impact they themselves have on others. The hostile person keeps asking ‘Why are people so hard to get along with?” In some measure we create our own environment. You may not yet grasp the power of that truth to change your life.

Of course failures are a part of the story too. Everyone fails, Joe Louis said “Everyone has to figure to get beat some time.” The question isn’t did you fail but did you pick yourself up and move ahead? And there is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?” A lot of people do. Learn not to.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful.

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty.

You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But life isn’t a mountain that has a summit, Nor is it — as some suppose — a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score.

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Perhaps you imagine that by age 35 or 45 or even 33 you have explored those potentialities pretty fully. Don’t kid yourself!

The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.

There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given.

You know about some of the gifts that you have left undeveloped. Would you believe that you have gifts and possibilities you don’t even know about? It’s true. We are just beginning to recognize how even those who have had every advantage and opportunity unconsciously put a ceiling on their own growth, underestimate their potentialities or hide from the risk that growth involves.

Now I’ve discussed renewal at some length, but it isn’t possible to talk about renewal without touching on the subject of motivation. Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people. But we have to bet on people — and I place my bets more often on high motivation than on any other quality except judgment. There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation, The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.

I’m not talking about anything as narrow as ambition. After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die. If I may offer you a simple maxim, “Be interesting,” Everyone wants to be interesting — but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.

The nature of one’s personal commitments is a powerful element in renewal, so let me say a word on that subject.

I once lived in a house where I could look out a window as I worked at my desk and observe a small herd of cattle browsing in a neighboring field. And I was struck with a thought that must have occurred to the earliest herdsmen tens of thousands of years ago. You never get the impression that a cow is about to have a nervous breakdown. Or is puzzling about the meaning of life.

Humans have never mastered that kind of complacency. We are worriers and puzzlers, and we want meaning in our lives. I’m not speaking idealistically; I’m stating a plainly observable fact about men and women. It’s a rare person who can go through life like a homeless alley cat, living from day to day, taking its pleasures where it can and dying unnoticed.

That isn’t to say that we haven’t all known a few alley cats. But it isn’t the norm. It just isn’t the way we’re built.

As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Old or young, we’re on our last cruise.” We want it to mean something.

For many this life is a vale of tears; for no one is it free of pain. But we are so designed that we can cope with it if we can live in some context of meaning. Given that powerful help, we can draw on the deep springs of the human spirit, to see our suffering in the framework of all human suffering, to accept the gifts of life with thanks and endure life’s indignities with dignity.

In the stable periods of history, meaning was supplied in the context of a coherent communities and traditionally prescribed patterns of culture. Today you can’t count on any such heritage. You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments — whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn’t handed out free any more — not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.

It may just mean doing a better job at whatever you’re doing. There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are –and that too is a kind of commitment. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It matters very little whether they’re behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.

I must pause to say a word about my statement “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” I first wrote the sentence some years ago and it has been widely quoted. One day I was looking through a mail order gift catalogue and it included some small ornamental bronze plaques with brief sayings on them, and one of the sayings was the one I just read to you, with my name as author. Well I was so overcome by the idea of a sentence of mine being cast in bronze that I ordered it, but then couldn’t figure out what in the world to do with it. I finally sent it to a friend.

We tend to think of youth and the active middle years as the years of commitment. As you get a little older, you’re told you’ve earned the right to think about yourself. But that’s a deadly prescription! People of every age need commitments beyond the self, need the meaning that commitments provide. Self-preoccupation is a prison, as every self-absorbed person finally knows. Commitments to larger purposes can get you out of prison.

Another significant ingredient in motivation is one’s attitude toward the future. Optimism is unfashionable today, particularly among intellectuals. Everyone makes fun of it. Someone said “Pessimists got that way by financing optimists.” But I am not pessimistic and I advise you not to be. As the fellow said, “I’d be a pessimist but it would never work.”

I can tell you that for renewal, a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall,

But I did say tough-minded optimism. High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don’t need. We have to believe in ourselves, but we mustn’t suppose that the path will be easy, it’s tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said “I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it wasn’t going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly — that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.

We cannot dream of a Utopia in which all arrangements are ideal and everyone is flawless. Life is tumultuous — an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory.

Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle — endless and of uncertain outcome — isn’t more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.

Remember I mentioned earlier the myth that learning is for young people. I want to give you some examples, In a piece I wrote for Reader’s Digest not long ago, I gave what seemed to me a particularly interesting true example of renewal. The man in question was 53 years old. Most of his adult life had been a losing struggle against debt and misfortune. In military service he received a battlefield injury that denied him the use of his left arm. And he was seized and held in captivity for five years. Later he held two government jobs, succeeding at neither. At 53 he was in prison — and not for the first time. There in prison, he decided to write a book, driven by Heaven knows what motive — boredom, the hope of gain, emotional release, creative impulse, who can say? And the book turned out to be one of the greatest ever written, a book that has enthralled the world for ever 350 years. The prisoner was Cervantes; the book: Don Quixote.

Another example was Pope John XXIII, a serious man who found a lot to laugh about. The son of peasant farmers, he once said “In Italy there are three roads to poverty — drinking, gambling and fanning. My family chose the slowest of the three.” When someone asked him how many people worked in the Vatican he said “Oh, about half.” He was 76 years old when he was elected Pope. Through a lifetime in the bureaucracy, the spark of spirit and imagination had remained undimmed, and when he reached the top he launched the most vigorous renewal that the Church has known in this century.

Still another example is Winston Churchill. At age 25, as a correspondent in the Boer War he became a prisoner of war and his dramatic escape made him a national hero. Elected to Parliament at 26, he performed brilliantly, held high cabinet posts with distinction and at 37 became First Lord of the Admiralty. Then he was discredited, unjustly, I believe, by the Dardanelles expedition — the defeat at Gallipoli– and lost his admiralty post. There followed 24 years of ups and downs. All too often the verdict on him was “Brilliant but erratic…not steady, not dependable.” He had only himself to blame. A friend described him as a man who jaywalked through life. He was 66 before his moment of flowering came. Someone said “It’s all right to be a late bloomer if you don’t miss the flower show.” Churchill didn’t miss it.

Well, I won’t give you any more examples. From those I’ve given I hope it’s clear to you that the door of opportunity doesn’t really close as long as you’re reasonably healthy. And I don’t just mean opportunity for high status, but opportunity to grow and enrich your life in every dimension. You just don’t know what’s ahead for you. And remember the words on the bronze plaque “Some men and women make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” To be that kind of person would be worth all the years of living and learning.

Many years ago I concluded a speech with a paragraph on the meaning in life. The speech was reprinted over the years, and 15 years later that final paragraph came back to me in a rather dramatic way, really a heartbreaking way.

A man wrote to me from Colorado saying that his 20 year-old daughter had been killed in an auto accident some weeks before and that she was carrying in her billfold a paragraph from a speech of mine. He said he was grateful because the paragraph — and the fact that she kept it close to her — told him something he might not otherwise have known about her values and concerns. I can’t imagine where or how she came across the paragraph, but here it is:

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”


From time to time I share speeches or addresses that I find inspiring. Have any suggestions for other speeches to share? Let me know below.

Random Acts of Kindness

With all the negative in the world, it’s important to remember that there is much good too. My family took a day trip today which provided lots of time to discuss things going on in the world. Coronavirus, politics, locusts, the economy, and our kids’ grades. There were some grim moments!

Towards the end of our trip we visited the office of one of our local government leaders. His office manager was so kind. She knew we were coming and prepared a tray of cookies and bottled water for all of us. She made us comfortable, gave us suggestions on how to take a tour of the building, and took a real interest in each of our kids. We visited with her for a few minutes before our appointment time, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the day for me. Her kindness was a ray of sunlight.

Each person you see is living a complex life. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. A smile and a kind word can make an incredible difference to another person, one that you will likely never know about and may not even make sense to you.

Remember that small acts of kindness never really go unrewarded. The sunshine you bring to another’s day will find it’s way back to you. The more light you produce the more you will receive.


Today kicks off “Random Acts of Kindness” week. I usually think arbitrary holidays are silly, but I really like this one. What acts of kindness have you received this week?

Balance

I have a pen that is great to write with when the cap is on the back. Take the cap off, however, and the balance is off. Writing with it is a chore because it doesn’t feel right. I want my pen to write when I tell it to, and an unbalanced pen doesn’t do that very well.

Life can get out of balance too. Sometimes imbalance happens to us, and sometimes we do it to ourselves. The quickest way to knock my life out of balance is to install Netflix on my phone. If it’s there I end up watching it. Once I’m in the app it’s easy to find a show that I like, and even easier to justify watching just one episode. My life is then out of balance! (I’m such a sucker for binge watching good TV shows. I can never watch just one episode.)

Learn what puts you out of balance and then make a plan to avoid those things.

A Letter to My 14-Year-Old Self

Life is funny. It’s also hard. It’s not fair and it has a way of exploiting your weaknesses. For all that, you should be optimistic about the future and joyful in your journey. You are lucky to be around in a time when diseases are largely under control, you’ll likely never go to bed hungry more than a few times in a row, and you carry around a smartphone that has what seems like the entire world inside it. It’s a pretty exciting time to be alive.

If there are just a few suggestions I can give it would be these: be kind to people, work hard, do hard things, and read lots of books. You should also take everyone’s advice with a grain or two of salt because no one really knows what they are doing, and that includes me.

Be kind to people

Everyone else has a life as full of emotion, expectation, and promise as you do. They feel like they have good reasons for their decisions just as you do. They usually do the right thing but sometimes mess up, just like you do. Don’t hold anyone to a perfect standard. They won’t measure up, just like you won’t. There are bad people in the world and you need to be aware of them. Give people the benefit of the doubt and they’ll prove themselves one way or the other pretty quickly.

If you have to choose, choose to be kind. The things I regret in life involve my temper with others, my mistreatment of others, and my lack of faith in others. I have never regretted being nice to others.

Work Hard

You may have some talent, but it doesn’t count for much in the real world. Being responsible, dependable, and working hard trumps talent every time. If you work hard in the areas you have talent in you’ll have some really great experiences. Work hard in the areas you don’t have obvious talent in and you’ll have life-changing experiences. Hard work wins out over talent every single time.

Do Hard Things

I wish someone sat me down as a teenager and beat this into my head. Hard things are good. You have to challenge yourself, push past your comfort zone, and learn to seek out difficult things. Most people hate doing hard things and avoid them at all costs. If you want to be like most people just avoid doing hard things. If you want to have a full, successful life you need to understand that doing hard things is necessary. Almost nothing worthwhile in life is easy.

The things I am proudest of were so hard at the time. Learning a language, learning to play an instrument, winning a race, completing a degree, getting married, raising kids. If it’s something significant you can count on it being difficult. The trick is to “embrace the suck,” acknowledge the difficulty, and learn to enjoy the process. The things I look back on, the significant growth I experienced, was never at the finish line. It was all during the process of doing hard things.

Read a lot of Books

The physical, paper book format isn’t the key here. It’s the act of reading. Learn to enjoy getting lost in a book. Learn how to glean at least one piece of wisdom from every book you read. Make books your default leisure activity. Over time you’ll discover the types of books you enjoy and you’ll get better at applying the things you learn to your work and your life.

I used to worry that I was reading the wrong books or reading books that weren’t impressive. That’s silly. There’s no such thing as the wrong books. Read everything, but don’t be afraid to stop reading a book if you don’t like it. Life is too short to struggle through books you don’t like. Maybe you’ll come back to it in a few years and feel differently. Maybe it’s something you’ll never come back and read. Move on and read something else.

Reading will take you around the world, introduce you to amazing people and ideas, and teach you wonderful things. Read, read, read.


I wrote this after an interesting conversation with my son who is 14. As we were talking I was struck by the thought, “am I saying this because it’s what’s best for him or because it’s what I want to hear?” After some thinking, this is the result.

Reading Gated Content

One of the most amazing things about the internet is hyperlinks. You’re reading something, see a link, click it, and suddenly you’re able to read something new that you didn’t know even existed. It’s like magic. It can also be terrible, yes. Point taken. But I’m frequently amazed at the things I discover when I’m reading a great article and click one of the links in it.

One of the problems I sometimes run into is gated content. If you click a link that leads to an article on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, or even Medium often enough you’ll start to run into paywalls. This is especially annoying if you only want to read a single article.

If you do read a publication frequently you should consider subscribing. It’s important to support writers and content creators. Maybe you do have a subscription but aren’t allowed to log in on your work computer. (/me raises hand!) Whatever the reason, if you need to occasionally get around content gating so you can give something a quick read, here’s how you can do it. These methods aren’t full-proof and may not work in the future, but as of February 2020 they have all worked for me.

Method #1: Incognito mode

For many sites, such as Medium, NYT, Washington Post, or HBR you can get around gating by using a private browsing window. You likely have an article open that has a paywall message.

Copy the URL from the address bar. It’s important to check if the URL has tracking information appended to it. If you see a ? in the URL, everything after that is tracking information. Don’t copy any of that, only the part of the URL that comes before the ?.

Next, open a new “Incognito Browser” window. Different browsers call this by different names, such as a Private Window. You can always find this in the File menu, generally after the New Window option.

After the Incognito window opens, paste in the URL and hit Enter. The article will load without the gating message so you can read it or save to Instapaper or Pocket for later reading.

This workaround works because many publishers allow you to view 3-5 articles per month for free, which they track with cookies. Incognito windows have no cookie history, so it will appear to the site as a brand new visit.

Method #2: Search for the Title

Some outlets, like Inc. Magazine, have started to gate articles on partner sites. This is a smart business move for them since they get paid for all views beyond the paywall, but it’s pretty crummy for readers since these articles are usually available on the publisher’s own website. That’s also good news though, as you can simply find the article on the publisher’s site and read it for free.

If you think this is the case, simply search for the article title in a search engine. For example, if the article is from Inc. Magazine and you find it behind a paywall on Medium, search for the article title in your favorite search engine. Select the search result on the publisher’s main site and you should be able to read the full text.

Method #3: Leverage your Library

There are a few publications, like academic journals or the Wall Street Journal, that require a reader to log in and have a subscription to see any part of an article. Using an incognito window won’t help you here.

Many public libraries have subscriptions that library patrons can use for free. Yesterday I read an article from the Wall Street Journal by logging in to my library account, searching for Wall Street Journal on the library website, and clicking through to their periodical tool. I then searched for the article title I wanted to read and was able to access the full text.

Take care of content creators

This isn’t intended to encourage people to not pay for content. If you find value in a publication you should consider subscribing to support the writers creating the content.

Reflections on 400 Days of Journaling

In late December 2018 I decided it was time to start keeping a journal. 400 days later I’m a bit surprised at how quickly the time has gone by. This habit has become an important part of who I am and has some interesting side effects. Here are a few thoughts on journaling and how it can help us in the work we do each day.

A Place for “Hot Letters”

The internet has largely made cowards out of us. It’s all too common to see whiny posts about unnamed people and businesses that hint at identity but never come out and say it. I say let them have it! Write it all down in your journal, in great detail, with all the scathing things you want to say. Don’t beat around the bush. Getting all the anger and resentment out is cathartic.

Abraham Lincoln called this practice Hot Letters, and it’s something people used to do. I love it. This has become one of my favorite things about a journal. I can rant and rave, and there’s never any real danger my frothing drivel will see the light of day. The act of writing the hot letter is nearly always enough to calm me down. So far I’ve never felt the need to say anything in a hot letter in public. Just writing it down gives the kick of saying it without the real life consequences.

A Place to Work Out Problems

I’m a strong believer in the bed-bath-bus 3 Bs of creativity. Sometimes the best thing to do is let your mind stew a bit and ideas bubble to the top when you least expect it. Writing about a problem often helps me come up with an answer I hadn’t considered.

I don’t spend any time writing about solutions, I spend time writing about the problem and that process brings new ideas to mind. Something as simple as using different words to explain the problem helps to reframe and refocus it.

A Place to Spot Patterns

I was about eight months into journaling before I started to recognize patterns in my behavior. (I know, I can be a bit slow.) These weren’t dramatic patterns. I started to see subtle patterns around my emotional state at certain times of the month, or times when I had a hard day. By looking at what happened a few days before I started to identify the triggers. Once you understand the trigger you can work out a plan for a better outcome.

Setting the Habit

There are lots of other things I enjoy about journaling, but these are the three ways it helps me the most. It took a while before I started seeing these benefits. Don’t expect to see an immediate difference; the real power is in consistent writing.

When I started my goal was simply to write something each day. I used an app called Day One and most of my journaling happened on my phone. I used a habit tracking app to remind me to write. Many days I only wrote one sentence. Sometimes I just snapped a picture. There are a lot of entries about the weather. In the early months my focus was simply doing it each day.

As journaling became more ingrained I started branching out. Many days I write in a notebook instead of an app. Some days have lots of pictures. Once in a while it’s a hot letter. There’s still plenty of noodling around, playing with ideas and describing problems. I’m not writing for anyone else.

The journal has become a place for unloading and releasing, for downloading ideas into an external brain. As you come back and read previous entries you’ll start to see the higher level benefits.

Deep Listening

Listening to music with musicians is interesting. Most musicians I know think of listening to music as an activity you do exclusively; not while reading a book, not while looking at your phone, or while working on email. The music deserves full attention while it’s playing. You learn and gain from the music by listening attentively and deeply.

This isn’t to say that musicians don’t like background music. They do, but they also have the annoying habit of actually listening to the background music much more than normal people do. (If you’re friends with musicians you’ve probably had the experience where they groan for no reason or interrupt you to say “I love this song” when you were unaware there was music playing.)

Imagine if everyone listened deeply all the time. How would our conversations be different? How much time could we save in meetings? How many misunderstandings could be avoided? How much more affection would we perceive? The next time you’re in a situation where listening is important, whether to music, to a friend, or even to the news, listen deeply.

Make Sleep Your Superpower

We all know we need it, but it’s so easy to have a bad relationship with sleep. We’ve all decided to stay up late or get up early. Life is hectic and sometimes it feels like sleep is the easiest block of time to compromise with. Don’t do it!

If you have the Calm app there’s an excellent session by LeBron James called “The Power of Sleep” in the Train Your Mind course. I think I learned more from listening to LeBron talk about how vital sleep is than from anyone else.

Unfortunately that’s gated content so not everyone will be able to listen to it. Here are some interesting articles I recently read that might be helpful as well. If you get into them you’ll see the common theme: all humans need eight or more hours of sleep to optimally function.

The things that have helped me most are getting to bed before 10 pm each night, no screens for an hour before bed, and reading a novel for a few minutes before I fall asleep.

The Rituals in Work

I have a notebook I write all of my first drafts in. When it comes out words seem to flow better.

I have a lamp on my desk that I turn on when it’s time for writing or serious reading. When the lamp turns on I feel like my brain snaps to attention.

There’s no magic in the notebook or the lamp. The magic is in the ritual they are a part of.

You likely won’t feel up to full speed or firing on all cylinders when it’s time to do the important work you do. Having a ritual that supports that work helps you overcome the ups and downs so you can be consistent in showing up.

James Clear has talked about the pre-game rituals he used as a pitcher in college. Steven Pressfield has a little toy cannon on his desk that “fires inspiration” when he’s in his “sacred space,” his office where he writes.

There is a lot of value here for you to explore. Create your own rituals and you’ll find that the resistance to getting started starts to melt away. Keep up your rituals and you may even find inspiration coming to visit.

Developing Character in Kids

I had an abrupt wakeup call last week when I read Adam and Allison Sweet Grant’s article Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids and Start Raising Kind Ones. If we want the kids in our lives to grow up to be kind adults we need to show them that we value kindness just as much as we value other kinds of achievement.

As the dad of three kids in middle school I try hard to talk with my kids about their day, their experiences, and how they are doing academically and socially. Music is important to our family and is probably the area I’m most “tiger mom” about. For my wife it’s math. We talk about their grades each day as well as their music practice. What we haven’t talked much about are their daily experiences with developing kindness and good character.

I recently wrote about my goal this year to do a good deed daily. After counseling together as a family, we decided our daily good deeds would be the first thing we discuss after returning home each day. Making service and kindness top of mind in my life has changed my daily experiences, and I hope it does the same for my kids too.

The early results have been fun. Yesterday we had a great conversation about whether or not letting a classmate look at your test paper for an answer is a good deed or not. We’ve heard how our kids sat with friends at lunch they haven’t talked to in a while and reached out to students they didn’t know who were sitting alone. I even have renewed hope that my kids will finally learn the dying art of holding the door open for people!

This won’t be a short term project, just as doing well in math or learning an instrument aren’t short term projects. Our actions are a daily vote for the person we want to be and who we will become. Make sure that character development is part of our daily vote!

Thoughts on Letter Writing

One of my mentors growing up was a local man named Tony. Tony was in real estate and seemed to know everyone. He volunteered at church and spent a lot of time with the young men in my youth group. Even though he was older, he went with us on campouts and was always up for an adventure. A great man!

One of the things I took for granted during the years Tony was part of my life were the notes and cards he sent.

If your name ever appeared in the local paper for honor roll or a sporting accomplishment, a few days later you’d get a letter of congratulations. My first public talk at church was terrible, but Tony sent me a thank you note a few days later. Every note was hand written and always included a Tony dad joke.

Seven years ago I moved back to my home town and Tony and his wife still lived in the area. The first time my son gave a talk in church, a note arrived in the mail a few days later from Tony. Through most of this time Tony was suffering from pancreatic cancer and was in a lot of pain, he never stopped showing gratitude and spreading joy with his terrible jokes. At his funeral last year many people mentioned receiving letters from him over the years. I decided I would try and keep a bit of Tony’s spirit alive in me by becoming a letter writer.

I’ve had mixed success. One of the hard things with writing letters today is that hardly anyone responds in kind. It took me until the middle of last year to decide I would write my letters by hand and that seemed to make a difference to how I felt about the letters, even if it didn’t improve my response rate. There’s something about writing a letter by hand that makes the process more meaningful. I think I usually get more out of the letters than the people I write to.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at letter writing, here are a couple of resources that I found useful:

A couple of things have made letter writing a lot more enjoyable for me. I started using a fountain pen. I’m definitely a novice in that world, but I do really enjoy the feel of the pen gliding over nice paper. It makes the experience something to look forward to. Nice paper makes a surprising difference. I bought a ream of heavy writing paper, cut it from letter size to half sheets, and made my own stationary.

Awareness of the Waterfall of Your Thoughts

One of my favorite vacations was a camping trip in Taiwan where I got to go River Trekking. This is hiking upstream in a river. It’s very intense and calls for you to climb over boulders, swim through deep spots in the river, push against the current, and generally have a great time playing in the water. At the end of our trek, a small 10 foot waterfall fell into a deep pool. My friends and I swam over to the waterfall and spent a few minutes playing in and around it. I’ll never forget the feeling of the water pounding down on my head, the power of the waterfall, and how it blocked out all other sensations.

Our thoughts are like a waterfall. Sometimes they trickle and sometimes they pound down, but our thoughts never really stop. The commentary running in our heads is relentless. When we focus on it, our thoughts have the power to completely absorb our reality.

You are not your thoughts.

That voice in your head, the constantly running commentary with the force of a waterfall, is not who you are. It seems amazing that I made it into my late 30s before I learned this simple fact. Just because my thoughts are in my head doesn’t mean that my thoughts are who I am.

One of the keys to mindfulness is learning to observe and be aware of your thoughts. Just because there is a waterfall of thoughts running through your head, it doesn’t mean you must stand beneath it and be pummeled. It’s possible to observe and be aware of your thoughts without getting caught up in them. It’s like watching a waterfall from the shore rather than standing beneath it.

This is incredibly liberating, though of course it’s easier said than done. Being aware of your thoughts means you observe the things running through your mind without interacting with them. Since you are not your thoughts, there is no reason to judge yourself based solely on your thoughts. Watch them as they float by, be aware of them. As you do this you’ll be struck by how varied, strange, and absurd your mind can be.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise when you think about the wild and outlandish world of your dreams. We’ve all had dreams that make us shake our head in amazement when thinking back on them, right? It shouldn’t be a shock then that our conscious thoughts can wander into strange places too.

Training our mind to be aware of and observe our thoughts is just as important as training our body through exercise. Take time each day to practice mindfulness, whether through meditation, solitude, or any other way that works for you. Enjoy the waterfall of your thoughts from the shore instead of from under the waterfall.

Leap Year Habits

The peg-legged month of February is quickly upon us, and this year its gait is even more angular than normal. To all of you born on February 29, happy birthday. It’s been four years coming. 🥳

February is as good a time as any to start something new. Austin Kleon has a fun 29 Day Challenge on his site that I like the look of. Since February is the shortest month it’s way easier to start a new habit in than January, right? (At least February doesn’t feel like it lasts forever as January sometimes does.)

Pick a habit you want to start, print off the sheet, and cross off the days you accomplish it. Don’t Break the Chain! I’m going to work on Intermittent Fasting every day.

Break Tasks Down into Small Chunks

As I write this my son is playing scales on his double bass. (Tomorrow morning he has an audition for the high school orchestra, which is a big deal for an 8th grader.) Scales are one of the most important and most boring things to practice on an instrument because they give the player a chance to work on small chunks of difficult notes over and over. It’s a great analogy for how all work should be done.

The B melodic minor scale on double bass has some interesting challenges. There are notes that aren’t played frequently and hand positions where the thumb goes somewhere it normally doesn’t. Getting this scale right involves practicing difficult movements over and over until they feel natural. Once those difficult sections are familiar the rest of the scale is easy to play.

In college and when I played music professionally I didn’t really appreciate the lessons I learned from playing hours of scales. Those same principles are scattered throughout the work I do each day. Break big jobs down into smaller chunks. Identify the chunks I’m already comfortable with and set those aside. Identify the hard chunks and spend the most time on those. Put everything together at the end and run it until it feels natural.

It doesn’t matter if the work is preparing a presentation, writing sales copy, coding part of a website, or having a difficult one-on-one conversation with an employee. The principles behind playing scales work for all the work I do, and probably for the work you do to.

I just hope I won’t have B melodic minor played by an 8th grade bassist stuck in my head all night. Ah, the hazards of parenting!

Process Accelerates Creativity

Recently I was part of an off-site planning meeting. My company flew people from different parts of the country to Portland for three days. Part of the success of these types of meetings is of course the human aspect—when you get together in person you form closer bonds—but our great success this time came in the creative leaps we made. We owe this success to the process put in place before the meetings.

Two members of our group did a great job of getting everyone’s input and ideas written down. They produced a schedule that we used to guide the meetings. During the three days they adapted the schedule based on where the process took us. Most of the time the meetings were very free-form and spontaneous, or at least that’s how they felt to me. Once in a while we would be nudged back into the structure of the schedule. It worked amazingly well.

In our case, process enhanced and accelerated our results. The structure made creativity possible. Don’t ignore the importance of setting up effective processes.

Do a Good Deed Daily

One of my New Year’s goals this year is to do a good deed daily.

It changes my day when I have a goal like this top of mind. I set out with the thought that I want to be helpful and do some good for the people around me. There have been a few times when I was able to do something significant, but generally it’s small things: holding a door for someone, smiling at people, taking the time to talk, and sharing some of what I know.

A side benefit I’ve discovered is I’m more aware of the good things people around me do. When I see someone going out of their way to be nice or serve someone I feel like I’m meeting a fellow member of a secret club. It feels great to see the good that others do, and helps reaffirm my desire to keep doing good too. Faith in humanity confirmed!

Art and Craftsmanship

I have a good friend who made his own dining room set. It’s a beautiful table with chairs and benches. It’s the kind of thing their family will be able to use for a long time and will always have a lot of sentimental and practical value.

My brother is an auto mechanic. Once when he was visiting I asked for help fixing a burned out headlight bulb. We spent a very interesting hour talking and taking apart the wheel well of my car. Time after time he calmly reached into his tool bag and brought out a tool that seemed perfect for what we needed. He took care to line the beam of the new bulb up with the beam of the old one. It was really impressive.

A friend at work is very handy. He bought a small starter house, and when he moved to a bigger house he rented out the starter house. Once in a while he’ll mention something about replacing a water heater or rewiring part of one of the houses.

I’m jealous of them. Their craftsmanship is in work they do with their hands.

I love watching the piano player at the jazz academy my kids attend. You can hear his love for the music he’s playing. He teaches the students how to move through a song, the things to listen for, and encourages them to try new things. When he plays you can feel the joy that he feels.

My boys started tuning pianos. This began as my younger son’s Eagle Scout project, and has since turned into a part time job for them. Tuning a piano takes time and patience. Each note on the piano has multiple strings that need to be both in tune with the pitch and with each other. Getting one note to sound correctly can take a while. Then you have 87 more notes to go!

It’s a grueling process to tune a whole piano. Getting the notes to sound in tune often takes a gentle hand. By the end of their last job I saw the beginnings of real pride in the work they were doing. I could see the change from “I’m getting paid to do this” to “I’m proud of my work.”

No matter what kind of work we do, we have the chance to develop craftsmanship. There’s art in everything done well.

Getting Goals and Habits to Stick

Over the past year I’ve had a significant change in the way I deal with goals and habits.

For a long time I wasn’t a person that set goals. I felt better without them, and was able to get more done when I wasn’t setting goals. (I blame Leo Babauta for sharing this idea. I really took it to heart.) I thought about things I wanted to do, but I wouldn’t go through the process of setting goals or tracking them.

In the end of 2017 I wanted to establish some habits. They are small things that I wanted to become better at, like writing in a journal and reading certain kinds of books. I wanted to be the kind of person who writes in a journal every day. I found a habit tracking app I like, called Streaks, and set out to see if simply tracking whether I do an action each day can help me establish a habit.

It turns out this really works for me. I enjoy clicking the box to say I’ve done something and the small reward of seeing my streak grow. After reading Atomic Habits I started to chain these small actions together. I added things like flossing my teeth, meditating each day, and daily writing. Just adding more things to my habit tracking app didn’t mean I actually did them, but eventually each of these habits has taken hold and become part of who I am. I don’t do any of theses things at a very high level. My writing won’t inspire millions and my journals won’t be carefully read in the future. That’s not why I do it. I wanted to improve and adopt actions that I admire.

Here are a couple of the keys that have made a difference for me:

  • Don’t worry about starting on January 1The day to set a new goal or begin a new habit is right now. Everyone knows that New Year’s Resolutions are arbitrary, but I also think we sometimes don’t start new things because the beginning doesn’t feel significant enough. (If I start exercising on 11 I know I’ll stick with it all year long!) That’s rubbish, and we all know it. Start your resolutions on the 15th or the 6th or the 23rd. When you start really doesn’t matter. Getting started does.
  • Gamification can help. I know that there are some people who are incredibly effective at using gamification to change their lives. (I’m looking at you, Nerd Fitness community!) Designing epic quests or creating an alter ego doesn’t work for me, but the simple gamification of keeping a streak alive does. Find out if gamification works for you, and use it if it does.
  • Don’t try to be epic. For years, since childhood, I tried to write in a journal consistently. The problem was that I never thought the things I was writing were worth anyone’s time to read! I was so focused on the vague future when someone would read what I wrote that I psyched myself out of writing at all. Now I just make sure I write something. Some days my journal is just a picture. Some days I write a lot. Getting the benefits of journaling was not a matter of being good at it, but simply of doing it.
  • Break big tasks down into chunks. Blogging and writing in public is another thing I wanted to do, but it takes so much time. Trying to brainstorm an idea, write out a post, edit it, publish, and promote it all on the same day is something I can do if I’m on vacation, but not when I have a regular day with work, school, family, and whatever other things pop up. Reading about Jeff Goins’ writing process really helped me. Now I chunk my writing process into three tasks: generating ideas, writing a post, and the steps of editing, publishing, and promoting. My goal is to do two of the three each day. The process of chunking has made writing less scary and something I’m able to do more consistently.

Our daily actions determine who we will become. Use small, simple steps to help you become the person you want to be.

Analog January Challeng

I love the idea of replacing digital habits, particularly ones you use a phone for, with analog habits. It can seem quaint, or old fashioned, or even hipster-ish, but I’m always delighted at the great experiences I have when I consciously choose to use a physical object instead of a digital one. Handwritten notes, hardback books, and typewriters. So much fun.

Cal Newport, author of the great book Digital Minimalism, issued an “Analog January” challenge. This is a great idea, and something I’m trying to do. Here are some of the ideas he gives:

Read

Commit to reading 3 – 4 new books during the month. It doesn’t matter if they’re fiction or non-fiction, sophisticated or fun. The goal is to rediscover what it feels like to make engagement with the written word an important part of your daily experience.

Move

Commit to going for a walk every single day of the month. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Leave your phone at home: just observe the world around you and think.

Connect

Hold a real conversation with 20 different people during the monthlong challenge. These conversations can be in person or over the phone/Facetime/Skype, but text-based communication doesn’t count (you must be able to hear the other person’s voice). To hit the 20 person mark will require some advance planning: you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.

Make

Participate in a skilled hobby that requires you to interact with the physical world. This could be craft-based, like knitting, drawing, wood working, or, as I’ve taken to doing with my boys, building custom circuits. This could also be athletic, like biking, bow hunting, or, as is increasingly popular these days, Brazilian Ju Jitsu. Screen-based activities don’t count. To get the full analog benefit here, you need to encounter and overcome the resistances of the physical landscape that surrounds you, as this is what our minds have evolved to understand as productive action.

Join

Join something local that meets weekly. For many people, this might be the hardest commitment, but it’s arguably one of the most important, especially as we enter a political season where the pseudo-anonymity and limbic-triggers of the online world attempt to bring out the worse in us. There’s nothing more fundamentally human than gathering with a group of real people in real life to work on something real together. This has a way of lessening — even if just briefly — the sense of anxious despair that emanates from the online upside down.

I suggest you pick one of these areas and set a goal. Don’t try and do them all. Pick one, put it on your calendar on a regular basis, and lightly track your progress in your journal, on a goal tracker, or even on a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge. One small change can make a big difference over time if you stick with it. Tracking your progress gives you natural times to look back and see the difference.

Dark Mode for Your Desktop Browser

Ever since Apple introduced a dark mode for macOS I have enjoyed using it. I’m not a hacker who works late into the night coding, in fact I’m very much a morning person who heads to bed pretty early, but I appreciate the way dark mode windows tend to lessen the strain of looking at a screen for an extended period of time. Apple has done a nice job of making default system applications dark mode friendly, and many application developers give this as an option as well.

One of the developers at SpiderOak showed me a neat Chrome extension that turns web pages into dark mode. It does this by identifying the color codes of various webpage elements, like the background and the foreground text, and reversing them. All of this is done in the browser window on your computer. It can add a slight lag to page load times, but it allows you to have a much more eyestrain-free browsing experience. (I like it so much that it’s one of the things I really miss on my phone compared to my desktop.)

This magic extension is called Dark Reader.

It’s compatible with Chrome and Chromium-based browsers (including my default, Brave, and the excellent Vivaldi), Firefox, and Safari. The Chrome and Firefox extensions are free, while the Safari extension is available in the Mac App Store for a small fee.

One of the things I like most about Dark Reader is the ability to create your own whitelist of sites. I like Startpage’s dark theme, so I put startpage.com on the list of sites Dark Reader should not activate on. Some websites detect your operating system’s dark mode preference and automatically renders a dark mode version. Sites like that I also whitelist. Once in a while there will be a site that just doesn’t look right or has elements that Dark Mode doesn’t render correctly. Turning it off for that page is very easy. I’ve found, however, that about 95% of websites I visit look great with Dark Reader enabled.

Resources for Reading Online Content

I’ve recently started a program that involves a lot of online reading. I deeply dislike reading in a web browser. Here’s what I do when I have a lot of web-based reading to do.

The Problem

Reading in a web browser is a pain. There are ads, popups, sidebars, and a whole list of other things that take away from the content itself. It’s also an inflexible format as far as the reader’s ability to customize the reading experience.

My Solution

Use a service like Instapaper or Pocket to save the articles. This has several advantages:

  • Articles are available offline
  • Articles can be read on a computer, phone, or tablet
  • Only the article content is saved, so there’s no sidebar content or other elements of the webpage to distract or take up space on the screen
  • Text size and color scheme is easily adjustable
  • You can highlight and take notes as you read

Both Instapaper and Pocket have free and paid versions. The features they offer in the paid tier can be nice, but they aren’t necessary if you simply want to gather your reading materials one place and keep track of them. I’ve been using Instapaper for quite a few years so that’s my first choice, but Pocket seems to be a good piece of software too. (I have no formal relationship with either service.)

Instapaper - https://www.instapaper.com/
Pocket - https://getpocket.com/

A Quick How To

After you create an account with one of these services, the first thing you should do is install their browser extension or bookmarklet. This gives you a button that you can click to save an article to your account.

How to save to Instapaper - https://www.instapaper.com/save
How to save to Pocket - https://help.getpocket.com/article/895-how-to-save-to-pocket-overview

I open all of the articles I need to read in different browser tabs. Then I go to each tab and click the Instapaper extension so that the article will be saved to my Instapaper account. I then go to Instapaper and double check that all the articles appear there. My last step is creating a folder in Instapaper so I can put all the articles together. (This is optional but helps me keep organized.)

I prefer reading on a tablet or phone to reading on a computer. The mobile apps for both services are very good and give a nice environment for reading.

Other Alternatives

If you use Safari, either on an iPhone, iPad, or browser on a computer, you can use the Reading List function. It’s similar to Instapaper or Pocket, though with fewer features.

If you want to print articles or save as a PDF, try the Mercury Reader Chrome extension first - https://mercury.postlight.com/reader/. This gives you a clean version of the article without any sidebar, ads, or other distractions. You can then print or save as a PDF. This is also a nicer way to read articles in your browser. If you’re on Safari there’s a built in version of this called Reader View.

A New Year’s Do Not List

It’s the time of year when we think about where we are, where we want to be, and what we should do to get there. I love the new year. Setting goals can be great and keeping new years resolutions, even for a few days or weeks, is a good thing.

As you take time to set goals, consider adding some “Do Not” goals to your list. Instead of adding more and more things to your already busy life, decide what things you want to subtract or stop doing. There is a beauty in progress by subtraction.

As you create space and time by not adding things to your to do list, you’ll be able to focus deeply on important things. The best work you do is deep work, and that takes time and concentration.

Simplify. Focus. Single task. Concentrate exclusively on the work you are doing at this moment. Great progress comes through the accumulation of small gains.

Here’s to a happy, productive, and peaceful new year!

Reading Digital Content on Analog Medium

I love to read blogs. There are so many amazing resources available online on so many topics. When I decided to cut back my device time as much as possible, this was the first thing I missed. I wanted the knowledge available on websites, but available to read in a non-screen medium.

The simplest solution is to print everything. I don’t want to do that. It’s cost prohibitive in the long term and very wasteful.

I dug out my scarred but still functional Kindle Keyboard. This old war horse has been with me a long time. It doesn’t have a backlight or a touchscreen. This is probably as close to paper as I can get without paper.

Next I needed to figure out how to get blog content on the Kindle in a sane way. I know there are browser extensions to send web pages to Kindle. If this were just for a few articles that would work. However, I read a lot. My Kindle would quickly be full of individual articles, making books difficult to find on it.

The workflow I landed on has three steps.

Find Content

I use the RSS feed service Feedly to bring in content from the blogs I like. I’ve never needed anything beyond Feedly’s free tier. I skim through and anything I see that looks worth a read is sent to Instapaper.

Compile Content

Instapaper has been around a long time. It’s a nice way to collect articles and gives options for tagging, searching, and taking notes. I use Instapaper’s “Send to Kindle” feature to compile all the articles from Feedly into an ebook and send to my Kindle once per day. This is a feature of Instapaper Premium which costs $2.99/month.

There are several settings you can use to control the amount of articles sent to Kindle. I set the minimum size to 10 articles. If there are fewer than than in Instapaper they won’t be sent. Instapaper has nice browser extensions so you can add interesting articles to your feed as well.

Each morning I go into Instapaper and archive the articles that have been sent to Kindle. I’ve adjusted the send to Kindle settings a few times to get them dialed in. I love that Instapaper compiles articles into a book that has navigation shortcuts like commercial ebooks have, with a table of contents and the ability to skip between articles using the buttons on the Kindle.

Reading Content

This is the fun part. :) Each digest of articles sent from Instapaper is dated. This is helpful so you can tell them apart. Amazon sees these as personal documents. If you’re familiar with the way Kindles handle content that will help you find the digests on Amazon.com if you ever need to. On the Kindle I delete each digest after reading it. This keeps things uncluttered. If I ever want to go back and redownload it’s available in the Personal Documents section of my Amazon account. All articles are available in my Instapaper account as well in the Archive section.

There are other methods to do this. Calibre, the free ebook software, has an RSS feed feature and a way to send content to Kindles. Pocket also has a similar “send to Kindle” function. I’ve used Instapaper for many years and enjoy their app design so that’s what I went with.

Getting Tweets via Email

I really like Twitter for the way it allows you to connect with thought leaders. I don’t particularly like being on Twitter or any social media service for an extended time each day. I decided to find a way to get a digest of tweets from some thought leaders in my inbox each morning.

In this example I’m going to set up a digest of tweets from Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) and James Clear (@JamesClear). These two are authors and speakers who tweet regularly and have long form writing that I enjoy. Both are also in my RSS feed, but because their writing is usually long form there’s generally a bit of time between articles. I think both are people who put effort into making their tweets valuable, which is why I’d like to still read them, but on my schedule and from my inbox.

Preparation

  1. I’m using Zapier for this. You’ll need a free Zapier account which will be connected to your Twitter account and your Gmail account. If you don’t feel comfortable giving Zapier that type of permission then this workflow won’t work for you. You can find details on how Zapier handles 3rd party account credentials here.
  2. You’ll need to create a list on Twitter of the accounts you want a digest of.

Setting up the list

In your Twitter account go to the Lists page. (You can find this in the sidebar or by going to https://twitter.com/YOURUSERNAME/lists.) Click the button at the top right to create a new list, then enter a name and description for the list. I always make my lists private, but both types of lists will work.

Next add the accounts you want a digest from as “members” of the list. Click Done when they have been added.

Setting up Zapier’s integration

You can see an overview of how this Zap (the name Zapier gives their integrations) works on this page. Click the Try It button and you will be prompted to log in to your Zapier account.

Next, you’ll need to allow Zapier to connect to your Twitter account. Once that’s done, select your Twitter account from the list and click Continue. Then choose the list you created in the step above and click Continue.

In the testing step Zapier will use the settings you specified to go out and pull some data. This allows you to be sure it’s pulling the correct information. It’s useful to have Twitter open to your list in a different tab so you can confirm that the three tweets Zapier pulls match the most recent three tweets in your list.

If everything looks right, select the most recent tweet and click Done Editing.

You’ll want to the second step, Append Entry and Schedule Digest, before moving on. I gave mine a title and chose a daily frequency for 5 am. Make sure to run a test to make sure this step works correctly.

Finally, you’ll need to connect your Gmail account. Zapier isn’t an email service; it needs to use your email account in order to send the email. In my case the email is sent and received using the same email address, but you could also send an email from your email address to just yourself or to a group of people.

Here’s a look at some of my settings for the email:

Once you have the settings the way you want you can send a test email. I played around with some of the settings, in particular the body type (plain vs html) before I landed on these settings. Experiment and see what works best for you. Please note that the test email you receive will only have the most recent tweet from your list! As new tweets appear they will be added to the digest and sent together as a single email in the time frame you specified in the second step.

The last step is to turn your Zap on. Congratulations!

If you run into any issues, check out the Guide in the right sidebar of the Zap settings. It has good instructions for each step of the process.

How to Switch your iPhone to Monochrome Mode

One of the productivity changes I added to my phone recently is enabling color filters and an accessibility shortcut. Triple pressing the home button now turns my phone’s screen from color to black and white.

Why do this? It turns out a lot of the visual fun of using a device is gone when there’s no color. Who knew? My screen time went down significantly after making this change. It’s easier to focus on the phone as a tool instead of the phone being a distraction.

Switching back to color is as simple as triple clicking the home button. (Note: My phone has a physical home button. There are other workarounds for those who don’t have a physical button.)

Here’s how to set it up:

  • Go to Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size > Color Filters. Enable color filters and choose Greyscale from the list.
  • Go back to Settings > Accessibility and select Accessibility Shortcut, then select Color Filters. When you triple click the home button, the grayscale color filter will be enabled or disabled.

HT to the Center for Humane Tech and Megan Holstein for the inspiration.

Of Course I Understand Your Acronyms!

…and I wouldn’t be brave enough to tell you if I didn’t.

My first three months working at a tech company I was constantly looking up acronyms just so I could understand what people were discussing on the company chat. It felt silly to have to do that, but at least I was able to catch up quickly.

Now that I have teenagers they will occasionally deign to translate their acronyms for me, the old guy. In a family group chat they’ll say, “BRB. In case Dad is wondering that means Be Right Back.” Funny kids I have, right?

All of this is mostly harmless and kind of fun. Just make sure that acronyms don’t exclude people from the work you and your team do. Internally it can be inconvenient. For your customers it can be a deal breaker.

HT to Stephan Pastis and Studio C for the inspiration.

Being Busy is Not Equal to Being Productive

One thing that always bothers me is when a coworker or friend starts a sentence with “I know you’re busy, but…” I’m never sure if this is a reflection on how I’m acting or how much I’m accomplishing.

Acting busy is easy. You just need to appear stressed out. We all do this. As Seth Godin put it, “All you need to do to feel busy is to try to get two things done at once.” Multitasking is not something our brains are built for. When we try to get two or more things done at once we do all of them poorly and we feel stress. We seem frustrated. And we probably appear very busy to the people around us.

Being productive is something completely different. (To be clear, I’m not talking about 45 step systems that allow you to become a millionaire in a month or do the work of four mere mortals without needing to sleep.) Productivity is based on results and process rather than situation. One of the most productive things I do each afternoon is meditate for 15 minutes. That time spent alone, practicing mindfulness, does more to help me get things done than nearly anything else I do. Single tasking is a close second. Productive people accomplish things but rarely do they seem “busy.”

When you feel busy, take a moment to figure out what you’re doing wrong. Have you scheduled too much? Are your deadlines unreasonable? Do you need to delegate or ask others for help? Are you trying to do two things at once? Do you need to break your current task down into smaller pieces? When is the last time you took a walk?

Being busy doesn’t help you get more done or mean that you’re important. Strive for productivity instead.

Hat tip to Scott H. Young and Seth Godin for the inspiration.

Peace with the Present

I feel extremely lucky to get to spend time with my family during the holidays. I am one of five brothers and three of us were able to come back to my parents’ home for Christmas along with our families.

As kids we had personalities and interests that took us in different directions. We also have a pretty large age difference. (I’m the oldest and am almost 20 years older than my youngest brother.) It wasn’t until we graduated from high school and went off into the world that we started to have closer relationships. I’m sure there were days when my parents wished we were better friends. Luckily that has come with age.

Part of the reason we’ve become close is our parents. We might not have paid very close attention to each other, but our parents spent a lot of time with each of us, supporting us in our interests and activities. Today our family has a professor teaching car mechanics at a technical school, a chef, a digital marketer, a cabinet maker, and a jazz musician. My father is a teacher and my mother is a decorator. Our differences are what make us so interesting! The understanding and appreciation we give each other, which we learned from our parents, brings us together.

Peace in our life can come from many sources but it always requires time and an open heart. I’m grateful for the peace and love I’ve felt this year.

Hat tip to Ryan Holiday and Seth Godin for the inspiration.

The Power of Crowds vs the Power of Groups

We tend to think of crowds of people in different ways. Crowdsourcing can be good, but the wisdom of crowds generally isn’t. The things that “everybody thinks” can be very wrong.

Groups of individuals, on the other hand, can have a powerful influence.

We read reviews because sometimes we can find someone like us who can tell us their experience with a product or a store. Professional critics can lead us to try food, listen to music, and read books that we might never otherwise have given a second look.

It’s important that you and I share our thoughts and experiences with others. In a world that seems to be increasingly overrun with bots and algorithms the opinions of real people matter more than ever. You probably won’t be the only voice in a given space, but that doesn’t mean your voice won’t be heard by other individuals.

Hat tip to James Hatch and Rohan Rajiv for the inspiration.

The Simple Method to Increase your Job Performance in the New Year

I feel lucky that I’m wired to be a reader. From my childhood I spent lots of time reading books and it’s something that I still do. My mother used to kick me and my brother out of the house so we would stop reading so much. I wish I had to do that more often with my kids!

In my career this has been so important. Each time I take on a new task or join a new team I assemble a reading list, plow through it, add new blogs to my daily feed, and within a short time I feel more comfortable with the basics of what I’ve been asked to do. Reading will never be the same as doing and experience is important, but for me quality reading makes the journey towards doing much shorter and fulfilling.

In our work we are judged on our output, rarely on our input. That’s unfortunate, because low quality input leads to low quality output. I love it when my boss gives our team something to read or watch. I learn more not only about the thing we’re working on but about his inputs and influences.

Here are some suggestions for getting higher quality input into your work routine.

Delete social media apps from your phone. More than any other action I’ve taken this year this has improved my life. I still use Twitter and LinkedIn on my computer and I can log in to the website on my phone if I need to. Not having the apps on my devices means I can’t default to using social media to kill a few minutes. Suddenly I have vast stretches of formerly occupied time available! It sounds like I’m trying to be funny, but I’ve read at least 10 more books this year because I deleted social media apps from my phone.

Read more than one book at a time. This sounds counterintuitive! Alas, most good books are not page turners the whole way through. There are times when I don’t want to read more about being productive, about business, or about anything non-fiction. I make sure I have a novel or two around, and I usually have 2-3 other books in progress at any given time. (A nightstand book, a bathroom book, a book on my work desk, a book on my home desk, and a book in the front room. If there’s a book wherever you go you’ll end up reading them!) Here is Scott Young’s great illustration on how this actually helps you read more.

Source: Scott Young

Read before bed. I remember reading Tim Ferriss’s advice along these lines years ago and have enjoyed this habit since. I tend to read narrative-based books, like novels, historical fiction, or biographies, before bed. Listening to an audiobook works for some people too. (I suggest using a timer on your audiobook app if you go this route so you can easily find your place in the morning if you fall asleep before the book stops.) You’ll be surprised how many books you get through by reading 30 minutes per night. You also have the added benefit of not using a screen right before bed, which many people find makes falling asleep easier.

Put reading time on your schedule. Call it whatever you need to so that co-workers won’t think you are slacking. If you read more you will have better ideas, make broader connections, and problem solve more effectively. It doesn’t matter what field you work in, this will make you better at your job. As Harry Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Get your reading time scheduled on your calendar.

HT to Scott H. Young and Austin Kleon for the inspiration.

Small Successes Lead to Big Victories

One of the hardest aspects of work for me is when I know I have a hard task to do. I’ve found some psychological trickery that works well on me that might be useful for you too.

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. There are lots of ways to implement it, but the basic premise is to work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. After four 25 minute work periods then take a longer break.

The reason this helps me is because no matter how hard the entirety of the task is, I know I can work for 25 minutes. It’s embarrassing how often I have to tell myself that any old dummy can work for 25 minutes, or that after I do one pomodoro I’ll quit and work on something else. Starting is the hardest part. Once I get going I nearly always find that I’m surprised by the timer going off, and starting the second, third, and subsequent pomodoros is never a challenge.

There is a lot of interesting research into why a technique like this, and I consider this a form of batching, works so well. Beating resistance and getting started is so important. Getting started early is important. Perhaps the most important aspect of this for me is that I may not see a path to success for a large project, but I know I can win if the game is simply to work for 25 minutes. I’m not worried about winning the whole war, just winning this one little battle.

Hat tip to David Cain and Tim Ferriss who wrote great posts this week on subjects that reminded me of this.

Training the Coward Inside

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about stoic philosophy and applications of stoicism. Ryan Holiday has some great books that are good primers on the philosophy and great springboards for applied stoicism.

Today I read You Must Train the Coward Inside You to my boys. (It’s a short read if you are interested.) Here are two of my favorite quotes:

Everyone has a breaking point. For most people, that point is very low, which is why many people never push themselves past their comfort zone.… And the dirty little secret is that everyone has a coward inside them, and if you really want to be tough, and I mean that both physically and mentally, you have to push that coward to the breaking point and then push past it every day. You have to embrace suffering.

That’s what Stoicism was built for. It teaches us to—as they say in the military—“embrace the suck” and find security and peace even in the midst of warfare and crisis.

While we all hope life will be smooth and easy we all know that’s rarely the case. All worthwhile pursuits involve training the coward inside us to “embrace suffering” and push past our “breaking point”.

Going Faster and Getting Lost

Seth Godin talked about going faster in a recent post. He said, “Going faster increase the chances you’ll find a landmark and become unlost.”

That is so true. In my younger days when I taught English in Asia I sometimes decided I would take a new road home from work every day for a week. The main road home took 20 minutes on my scooter. There were many opportunities to get lost. It was so much fun! These were the days before GPS on your phone, so getting lost meant asking a person for directions. This was one of the ways I forced myself to practice Chinese.

On those long rides there were often times where I felt lost but also that I was going in the right direction. Sometimes all it took was trusting myself and I could find my way to a familiar place. My list of familiar places got a lot longer. When I was really lost, all it took was asking for directions and a few more minutes of driving to get things sorted out.

Those rides made me much braver. I learned that being lost was confusing, but temporary. It could be easily fixed.

I still find truth in these principles. Keep moving. Ask for help when you need it. Being lost is temporary and solvable. Keep moving!

Be Out in Nature

I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek. Right now I am on a campout with my boys and the local Boy Scout troop. We hiked a mile or so up to a secluded campground where we hung hammocks and pitched tents. Right now I’m enjoying the sounds of the woods as I relax in my hammock, surrounded by down quilts.

Sounds great, right?

The hike in was on an overgrown trail with sticker bushes everywhere. By the time we arrived in camp our pants were coated with stickers.

Then there were the spiders. We’ve had record rainfall all year and the woods are very lush and overgrown. The spiders are out in force! We ran into so many spiderwebs on the trail, most with large spiders on them. Nothing gets the adrenaline flowing like a spider on your face!

Despite all this, we’re pretty happy. In spite of the spiders and the weeds and the other nature that should make us cringe we’re calm and relaxed. Part of it is that the boys have no screens or devices with them. Part of it is that being out in nature brings something special out in each of us.

As I lay here in my hammock I’m grateful for the bugs and the laughing young men who likely won’t go to bed until after midnight. I don’t get to be out in nature like this often enough. I’m glad I get to be here tonight.

The Profound Power in Showing Up

All skills, habits, hobbies, and jobs that are worth doing take time and repetition. They don’t come easily or without effort.

The process of acquiring these skills can be monotonous. Write 500 words. Throw 50 changeups. Create a lesson plan. Play your scales. Cook pasta. Repeat tomorrow and the next day and the next. It takes thousands of repetitions before something amazing happens, before the work becomes art. We usually don’t know exactly when the magic will happen and the wait can be tough.

Showing up to practice is so important. We’re all striving to make different kinds of art. The thing we have in common is that the only way to get there is to show up over and over again. We have to try and fail and improve, then try some more. It won’t be easy. Great journeys never seem to be.

Each time we show up is another vote cast for who we want to be.

I think something else happens when we show up consistently. We gradually conquer our fear, our pride, and our weakness. “I can’t” becomes “I can, and here’s how I know.” The record we build for ourselves fundamentally changes who we are. It gives us the strength to overcome in the most important battles we fight, inside our mind.

Start small. Tie your practice to something you already do consistently. Keep track of how you show up. The progress will come in much bigger ways that you anticipate.

The Things We Actually Have Control Of

As I write this I’m listening to three student jazz groups playing. (I have one child in each group so I sit in between the three rehearsal rooms so I can catch snatches of each group as they play.)

Last week these groups held auditions. One of the students who auditioned got his placement today and wasn’t willing to accept it. He is the oldest bass player that tried out but was placed in the lowest of the three groups. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s embarrassing and discouraging when something like this happens. He spent the two hours of rehearsal time sitting in the hallway refusing to participate.

We all go through these kinds of situations. I think the key to getting through is to spend our time and energy focused not on the larger situation but on the things we can control.

So what exactly is in our control?

  • Our emotions
  • Our judgements
  • Our creativity
  • Our attitude
  • Our perspective
  • Our desires
  • Our decisions
  • Our determination

Pretty much everything else is outside of our control. But look at all we do have control over! This list encompasses so much. If we all learned to control even a sliver of this we would be unshakable.

I hope the young man decides that he is going to go forward and grasp this opportunity. This could be an important turning point for him. We rarely have control of the auditions in life but we do have control of our actions after. Taking control of those things we can control makes all the difference.

What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way

It’s the nature of being human that we will have bad days. And sometimes bad weeks. Or bad months. Maybe even bad years.

The list of things that can go wrong or happen to us seems endless. (Not trying to be a downer here, but it’s true!) There is real pain and suffering in the world and it happens to me and you.

The good news is that we are never alone and that we always have a choice.

Go to friends, family, or professionals when you need help. You are not alone! Just knowing that can makes a world of difference.

As Marcus Aurelius said, “Our actions may be impeded but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Whatever is standing in your way, use it to help you move forward.

Change Your Medium to Change Your Results

For years, and this is pretty embarrassing to admit, I had the goal to write blog posts. I learned a lot about website development. WordPress became a tool I knew well. Recently Hugo and static site generators have been my favorite hobby. I loved everything about website development. (Here comes the embarrassing part.) But I hated writing content.

I would fire up my favorite text editor or focused writing app and stare at the screen. Nothing came easily. I could sometimes eek out a post or two but never more and never for more than a few days at a time. My perception from my student days that I was a good writer took hit after hit because I couldn’t force myself to write posts consistently.

This all changed in August 2019. I had already started the process of moving most of the rest of my writing, from meeting notes to to do lists, back onto pen and paper. The day I decided to try and write a blog post long form on paper I felt the writer’s block dam burst and the words flowed.

This doesn’t mean that writing is easy for me. I don’t know if that will ever be true. But over the last six weeks I have finally been able to consistently write content that I want to share.

Changing my medium made all the difference.

I’ve found this works in a lot of areas. I now write notes to my kids instead of texts. They read them! They even reply in kind! Sending out handwritten invitations to dinner gets much better responses than an emails. And a snail mail letter makes an impression that a thousand pings or texts can’t match.

This isn’t a call for reversion away from technology. Just don’t count out the power of mediums you might not normally consider. Changing your environment and your medium can free your mind to do better work.

You Are a Mashup of What You Choose

One of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon, wrote in his book Steal Like an Artist of how we are all mashups. From our genetics to our creative influences, we are the sum of many parts.

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said ‘We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.’

We are also shaped by our habits. I worry that in my life I too often choose to dive into a screen rather than spending time thinking or reading. Activities that used to be confined to our computers, such as social media, now live in our pockets and are available all the time.

Making hard decisions about what we allow on our devices can make a huge difference in our quality of life.

I don’t need a world of on-demand video on my phone. If it’s there I will spend time watching it.

I don’t need Twitter (or Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or Pinterest) on my phone. I’ll never be bored enough to get the benefits of boredom if I’m never more than a moment away from more content.

I don’t need notifications for most apps. Notifications pull my attention away from doing work (or anything else!) deeply and with quality. Context switching is brutal and I want to avoid it whenever possible.

Most of the convenience our devices give us is garbage. It’s input we should avoid. I need to curate the influences in my life because those influences shape who I am.

Get Comfortable With Your Own Mind

One of the issues I see in the youth I work with is a need for constant entertainment. It makes sense; all the entertainment in the world exists on that small screen we carry around in our pocket. We have lost the ability to tolerate boredom.

This is a problem because an idle mind is the fertile ground that ideas grow in. In my life I’ve seen the truth of the old saying that creative ideas come while you’re in bed, in the bath, or on the bus. (For me it’s more like while mowing the lawn, driving, or swimming, but the premise is the same.) If we don’t give your mind input it’s amazing what it will create on its own.

But this inability to deal with boredom is deeper than just a habit of looking at our phones. If we don’t spend time alone with our mind we start to feel uncomfortable when we’re “alone with ourselves.” Introspection and pondering are skills that need to be developed.

Meditation is a great way to start getting comfortable with our own mind. If you’ve never tried meditation a good place to start is the free Oak Meditation app. Most meditation apps seem to feel you need a monthly subscription to be mindful. Oak is not one of those.

However you do it, spend more time alone with your mind. Go for a walk without your phone or headphones, sit calmly and think about your day, or try doing the dishing while going over problem in your mind. It will lower the stress in your life. You’ll also discover that you’re a pretty great person to spend time alone with.

Time to Get a Library Card

For 10 years I lived in the wonderful land of Taiwan. It’s safe, filled with really great people, and relatively cheap. Sure I missed my family and friends back in the US, but technology meant we could have video chats and phone calls which helped a lot.

The thing I missed the most was the libraries!

The library in my hometown is more than just a place to check out books. It has internet access, nice areas to work or read, educational programs, access to materials from nearly any library in the country, and knowledgable staff. The digital resources it gives patrons access to largely replace the need for an Audible or Kindle Unlimited subscription, or the need to buy online courses. It’s an amazing place.

Since we moved back it has become one of the places our family gravitates to. I love seeing my kids curled up with a book. I also love seeing my wife get excited for the free classes they offer.

September is Library Card Sign-up Month. If you don’t have one yet, please seek out your local library and get a card. Take a friend or family member with you and get them one too.

We pay for libraries with our taxes. Get the most value for that money paid by being a frequent patron. I personally earmark my tax dollars to go towards libraries and national parks. 😉

The Joy of Artistry

Today I watched an amazing jazz pianist play in a way that filled me with joy. Yes, he was teaching a class full of young vocalists who don’t always hit the right notes or come in at the right time. This wasn’t a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. But his playing was both superb and infectious. It made me want to get out an instrument and practice!

Seeing mastery in action is amazing and awe inspiring. We don’t see the years of hard practice, the disappointments and trials that shaped the artistry we hear today. But knowing those things were part of his journey in one way or another make celebrating his achievements even more fun.

Here is someone who strives! In that moment I heard beauty, joy, and soul come out of his playing. I’m so grateful for the artists who make experiences like this possible.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go and practice making some art.


For those that are curious, the amazing pianist is Mr. Charles Williams. He teaches at the Kansas City Jazz Academy and two of my children have the privilege of studying with him there.

Hope for the Future

Today a child taught me there is hope. Our global environmental situation is a scary one. It’s easy to feel hopeless.

For the last month since returning to the US from Asia, I have felt hopeless. There are so many changes needed and anything I do has so little effect. At least that’s how it feels.

Today I saw a young boy teaching another young child how to recycle. He stopped the child from throwing away a recyclable and took the child over to the recycle bin instead. It was such a small thing, but it filled me with hope.

Maybe our hope for the future is safe. Maybe we need to trust in the kids around us, teach them well, and support them as they change the world in ways we couldn’t.

We don’t get to be Daniel LaRusso. But we can be Mr. Miyagi.

Recognizing Bias through Self Reflection

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works… We’re all biased to our own personal history.” - Morgan Housel

A huge challenge working in teams is overcoming bias. No matter who we are or what our background we have some bias. It’s hard to make good decisions when bias gets in the way.

How can we recognize our own bias? How can we make good decisions despite it? Look out for times when you think of someone as “the other.” When a thought like this crosses my mind I try to immediately reframe the situation. Would that statement seem reasonable coming out of my mouth? What about someone I deeply respect? Would I have the same reaction in that case?

Examining our feelings can help us to understand where our comfort zone ends. That’s where our work begins. Self reflection is the first step to creating a more inclusive and vibrant team.

Using an Apple Watch with Bluetooth Off

This is a pretty niche thing to do. I wear an Apple Watch for the convenience, but I’m also very concerned with how terrible Bluetooth is from a security perspective. Leaving Bluetooth on all the time on your phone is a terrible idea. (This is well documented).

I went off in search of information on if it’s possible to use an Apple Watch without iPhone’s Bluetooth turned on (TL;DR Yes!) and whether it’s worth by time to do so (TL;DR more complicated by still Yes!).

Apple has a page that lists all the functions of an Apple Watch that work independent of a phone. There are three categories of use in this situation. (And to be clear, when your phone’s Bluetooth is turned off you have severed the direct connection between the phone and watch, so it’s just like having a watch that’s set up but not paired to a phone.)

1. On a watch without Wi-Fi, cellular, or a phone connection you can use these features:

2. On a watch with a Wi-Fi connection but no cellular or phone

The caveat here is that once you leave the WiFi connection you lose anything internet connected.

3. On a watch with cellular connection but no phone

If your watch is connected to a cellular network, but your iPhone isn’t nearby, your watch can do the same things that it can when using Wi-Fi.

My watch doesn’t have a cellular connection but it does support Wi- Fi. I’ve been using it without connecting to my phone for a few weeks and I can barely tell the difference. Alerts come through the same, though with a very slight delay. I generally keep my phone on silent and I feel a buzz on the phone a half second before a buzz on the watch.

Works for me

When do I reconnect? I’ve found driving to be one time the connection is really nice. Looking at Apple Maps directions on my watch while driving is one of the most convenient aspects of the watch. When I get to my destination I simply pull out my phone, call up Siri, and turn off Bluetooth.

The other thing I’ve discovered is the very few times I actually need Bluetooth on my iPhone turned on: using Airpods or connecting to a keyboard. The solution for those times is the same: call up Siri and turn Bluetooth on, then turn it off the same way when I’m done with the accessory. It is important to note that newer versions of iOS do not allow you to completely turn off Bluetooth through the control center. You need to either go into Settings > Bluetooth or use Siri to turn it off completely.

In a Digital World We Miss 65% of the Message

I read in interesting article that got me thinking about communication. Ray Birdwhistell wrote in “Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication” that words carry no more than 30-35% of a conversation or interaction. This isn’t to say that words aren’t important, but the non-verbal aspects of interactions carry a lot of weight.1

In a world where more and more of our interaction happens digitally, we are missing out on a lot of context. This isn’t exactly a new problem. For much of modern history people communicated in writing and experienced the same problem. Handwriting did help in some ways—you can spot emotions in the way people write much better than you can in type. Those types of context clues are still far more than we get when we’re communicating in texts and DMs.

In my job were we’re mostly working remotely this is something we worry about. We call meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page. I know I have misunderstood a colleague by reading tone into a message that wasn’t really there. We realize this can cause problems so we try to self correct by supplementing our digital, written communication with voice and video communication.

It is important to take the time to have real conversations so we can appreciate the nuance and full spectrum of meaning in the messages we receive. It will likely mean slower communication, but it will be much richer.


Footnotes

  1. https://www.silentcommunication.org/single-post/2016/03/20/17-Non-verbal-communication-percentage. You’ve probably heard a different statistic. Albert Mehrabian’s 1970 study’s is often misquoted to mean that non-verbal communication makes up 93% of all communication.

Assume the Best in Others, Despite Any Evidence to the Contrary

I had a friend years ago who’s father owned an exercise equipment company. His father gave an interview that always stuck with me. His favorite line was “work hard, play hard, sleep well.” Recently we went through some technical issues at work and customers contact us to complain. That’s always uncomfortable, but more so when you are genuinely trying to be forthcoming and honest.

We know what goes on in our own mind and what our intentions are. We have a good idea about the intentions of people close to us. It’s so hard to feel satisfied that people outside our immediate circle are working in good faith. We’re conditioned to assume the worst, and for some very good reasons. But if we allow that to be our default assumption about everyone we miss out on the joy that comes from understanding others.

I’m going to assume the customer that accused me of hiding my intentions just hasn’t learned this skill yet. He is likely a delightful person who is having a bad day. His anger helps him right now, and I accept that. Eventually he’ll either come around or he’ll move on.

As for me, I will be fine either way. I know we’ve done a good job. I’ll allow his anger to give me a chance to practice skills that will serve me for years to come. This moment could be an important milestone that I will look back on with fondness in the future.

I will sleep well tonight knowing that I did my best work today.

Holiday Fun: Scoring a Baseball Game on Paper

Recently my family went together to a KC Royals baseball game, only my second live game of the season. Usually at the park I’m on my phone between innings (along with nearly everyone else!) but I decided it would be a pen and paper only game. I wasn’t interested in journaling during the game and the Royals have once again not give us much to be grateful for this season, so instead I decided I would learn how to score the game.

This is new to me. When my boys played little league I helped coach and I love to watch baseball. I just never had anyone teach me how to score a game. (And I was always a bit embarrassed about this when I was asked to help out at their games. Run the scoreboard? Sure. Score the game? Sorry, I don’t know how to do that.)

We arrived just before first pitch and I got the lineup info entered. Then I realized I had no idea what to do next. I asked the folks around me if they knew how to keep score, but no one did.

Luckily the internet saved me. The Art of Manliness, one of my favorite blogs, had a great article on scoring a game with pencil and paper. By the bottom of the 2nd inning I was in the groove!

It turns out watching baseball while keeping score is much more exciting than just watching. There’s so much more context! The ballpark also has a lot of little helps, hidden in plain sight, to help people keeping score. Not sure if that double play in the 4th inning was a 6-4-3 or a 4-6-3? Wait for the batter to come back up and the right score will be on the big screen.

Subtracting my phone from the game made it so much better. Adding in the great tradition of scoring by hand made the game come alive. Analog for the win again!

Be Audacious

Holding back is an easy thing to do. There are times when it’s smart to hold back, watch a situation unfold, and be conservative in your approach. That’s an important skill to develop, but I think the opposite skill is just as important and much harder to learn.

Here’s an example from a member of my team. He has a background in sales and moved into directing our partnership efforts. This was new territory for us; I didn’t have much background in this and he didn’t either. He started small by contacting sites that we had previous affiliate relationships with. Within a month, however, he was closing contracts with sites that have millions of monthly views and built an impressive portfolio of partnerships. It was an amazing piece of work and far outside what I thought was possible.

There’s a time to be audacious.

One of the best examples of this is how Richard Branson got started in the airline business. He was among a group of passengers stranded at a small airport on the way to Puerto Rico because of a canceled flight. He had the idea to charter a plane, and divided the cost of the charter among the stranded passengers. They gladly paid $39 to continue on their trip, and the groundwork for Virgin Atlantic was started.

Looking back it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and that’s part of the beauty of bold action. In the moment it can feel gut wrenching, terrifying, and incredibly risky. By practicing being audacious in small things, we become prepared to be audacious in big things.

Audacity can be learned. Boldness can become a habit.

Start small by taking actions outside your bubble of comfort. Compliment someone who did great work even if it feels threatening to do so. Think of a strategy that could be huge even if it sounds a bit crazy at first. Develop your taste for bold action. Make a habit of looking for the bigger play or the key move in a larger course of action.

And most important, when the moment for action comes be audacious.

My New Journal Mashup

I’ve been struggling a bit with my journal. For the past couple of months I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I like it, but it is restrictive. Sometimes I find myself just not writing because I don’t want to decide how to categorize or add something to my index. I appreciate some aspects of the system, but not all are for me. I am coming to the end of a notebook and I wanted to make an adjustment so I can make better use of the new one.

I also ran across an article recently that mentioned the 5 Minute Journal . I always like the concept behind that. The issue for me was that I didn’t want to buy a journal that was only 5 Minute Journal entries. (It’s a combination gratitude journal and basic daily planner. Useful, but hardly able to function as a catch-all.)

So I made my own mashup.

On the left is the outline of a 5 Minute Journal entry. On the right, a slightly more structured BuJo page. This means I’ll be using one spread per day, which will use more notebooks, but I’m actually excited to write in it again. The past few days have been excellent, both in terms of capturing the things I need to do, and in terms of allowing me to evaluate my day and make improvements.

The other change I’ve made recently is carrying around a small field notes-sized notebook with me. I think of it as my “everyday carry” notebook. Anything fun or interesting that I hear or see goes into it. There isn’t intended to be lots of meaning here, just a place to jot and doodle. When I’m back at my desk I can transfer over anything significant into my main journal.

I also added a larger notebook that my writing goes into. Everything from blog posts to presentations to talks start off in the big notebook and are written by hand. The second draft happens when I type them into the computer.

H/T to Austin Kleon and David Sedaris for the idea of using multiple notebooks together in a loose system.

Start to Protect Your Privacy with These Two Steps

We all need to be a bit more invisible on the internet. I’m in marketing and I can tell you that the number of ways you are tracked around the web are as scary as they are creative.

Luckily there are some simple things we can do to avoid most of the tracking (and speed up your browsing at the same time).

Step 1: Block trackers and ads

  • Install a tracker blocker on your browser. The EFF’s Privacy Badger works really well.
  • Instal the HTTPS Everywhere extension. This tiny but mighty add-on helps to ensure you have a safe connection to websites you visit.
  • Install uBlock to block ads on most sites.

These extension are available for most browsers. If you want an all-in-one solution that includes these things by default, try the Brave browser. It’s based or Chrome so the majority of Chrome extensions work with it.

The second thing you can do is stop using Google as your search engine. Part of the reason we are tracked so effectively is because we use Google search. In many ways it is the beginning of the tracking cycles. Using an alternative search engine gives you a similar experience without the pernicious tracking of Google. It also helps avoid “search bubbles” where you see the same type of results based on things you’ve clicking on in the past.

  • Startpage.com is my go-to search engine. The results come from Google but are filtered so that Google doesn’t see you as the searcher. Excellent search results without the tracking.
  • DuckDuckGo.com is my other favorite. They have an excellent browser extension on desktop which blocks trackers and ads as well as setting DuckDuckGo as your default search engine. Their mobile app has become by default browser on my phone.

These are small steps you can take to help safeguard your privacy online. They don’t take much effort but over time can make a big difference.

Back to Pen and Ink

In the last six months my wife and I have been going through boxes of old books and papers from years past. You see, we have made some major moves in our 16 years together, including two international moves that basically forced us to start over from zero. the one place we were able to keep some mementos was in my parents’ basement. This spring my Mom, who allowed us to keep the stuff there for years longer than it should have been (Thanks Mom!), finally told us it was time to come and reclaim our stuff. Fair enough!

We took eight boxes of thins back to our house and they landed in our garage. A few months later we spent a Saturday going through everything, deciding what to keep and what to let go. That in itself is a group experience. Thank Marie Kondo for teaching us how to thank things for the joy they brought us and then let them go!)

College textbooks, old novels, and other stuff that seemed important at the time but isn’t really now all went to the thrift store. Photos, journals, important books and letters, and childhood mementos were taken out, experienced again, and found a new home. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

One of the interesting thins I discovered was that I used to take a ton of notes. The time in my life when I experienced the most personal growth and positive changes was the time that I also took the most handwritten notes. Agendas from meetings were filled with notes. I filled the margins of books with notes. Every scrap of paper seemed stuffed with my handwriting. I was frankly amazed—I don’t remember being a person who wrote much, especially by hand.

That time in my wife was before I had much access to technology. My cell phone was just for calls, my computer use was either in a computer lab or on a family computer, and the most important possessions I had were books and musical instruments.

I subsequent years I would start to acquire digital things like a laptop and a PDA, then later an iPod, a smartphone, etc. I lived overseas and, though I loved to read, couldn’t always afford to buy English books. Ebooks became one of the most precious thins in my life. It also led me to learn about Linux, some computer programming, and eventually to the awesome job I have working at a software company. I love all of this and am so grateful for it.

I also miss my analog life.

That day, going through the memories and remainders of my pre-digital life, I wanted so much to reclaim the part of me that spent hours taking notes by hand. I know I lost a bit of myself when I decided to going all-in on a digital life was the thing for me.

I started with small steps:

  • Having a pen and notebook with me each day
  • Reading physical books

Has my life drastically changed? Not in major terms but it has in some important small details. My memory is better. Things I write as handwritten notes stick in my mind better. (This was one of my biggest concerns! No search functions in a paper notebook.) I won’t go into the details here of the system I use, but I can say it has made me more efficient rather than less.

How Intermittent Fasting Has Helped My Relationship With Food

Back in November I ran across an excellent article on Medium about How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You. I loved it, and spent the better part of an evening implementing many of the recommendations on my phone. There were several recommended apps that I had never heard of that I set off to explore, including one called ‎Zero - Fasting Tracker. I downloaded it and started to do some research on Intermittent Fasting, the practice the app helps you track.

The What of Intermittent Fasting

I was raised in a household that practiced dry fasting one day per month, so I’m not a stranger to fasting, though it was also one of the things I hated most and tried my hardest to dodge. (Which is hilarious because my kids now try the same things to get out of it that I tried for all of my childhood. As if they could play a player! 😂)

Intermittent Fasting (or IF) is different than the fasting I had experience with. While there are a number of variations, the principle is simple: don’t take in calories for a certain number of hours between dinner and your next meal. Drinking water or drinks with no calories is fine, but eating is not. I use the 16:8 IF variation, with a 16 hour fast and an eight hour window for eating.

This isn’t really a diet since you can eat whatever you want during the time you’re not fasting. This is one of the things that appealed to me most—it’s dead simple. Don’t eat when you’re fasting, and eat when it’s time to eat. No restrictions, no food logging. Easy as pie 🍰.

How IF has helped me

I wouldn’t say I have a bad relationship with food, but it’s definitely complicated. Guilt around eating is a very real thing for me. IF has helped.

The first immediate change I noticed was that I stopped snacking. After the first two days, which were hard, I stopped eating anything between meals. (The routine I have been following is fasting from after dinner, usually starting at 6 pm, until at least 10 am. The eating window starts then and ends at 6 pm.) I eat a good lunch, have a nice dinner with my family, and don’t really eat anything in between. It’s not that I’m trying not to snack; it just hasn’t happened. This is a big change for me.

I have been able to use IF as a trigger for new habits. When I get hungry in the morning I make a cup of herbal tea or fizzy water. This helps tide me over until lunch and is a great time to do a mindful activity. I started writing in my journal during this morning tea time, another habit I’ve tried and failed to be consistent at in the past. Being more mindful isn’t a strictly physical benefit of IF, but it’s had a very real effect for me.

There have been some good physical changes as well. I have lost some weight. Nothing dramatic, but enough that it’s about time to go buy some new pants. My skin is clearer than it’s been in years. I have more energy, particularly in the afternoon. (I haven’t had a post-lunch lull since I started with IF.)

I also feel particularly clear headed and sharp in the mornings. I’m a morning person and tend to get all of my most important tasks for the day done before 10 am. This was actually my main concern before starting IF—if I’m tearing-my-hair-out hungry during my most productive time of the day then the quality of my work will be in the toilet. The exact opposite has happened. I am able to focus and power through tasks in the morning, which makes the rest of the day much better.

Resources on IF

Here are a few of articles and videos I found helpful in learning and practicing IF:

Articles

Videos

Apps

In Memory of Roy Hargrove

As a gawky high school freshman I was invited to do something really cool and join the high school jazz band. Our school district put freshmen at the junior high, so it was pretty neat to go to the high school a couple of times a week and play music with the upperclassmen. I was the only bass player in the high school system so it didn’t matter that I wasn’t any good; if they wanted a bass player they were stuck with me.

By my sophomore year I was practicing a lot and started to really enjoy jazz. By my senior year jazz band was my main activity and the thing that identified with more than anything else in my life. I was pretty good and played throughout college and even spent a few years playing professionally. Jazz is still a huge part of my life, and I happily claim to be the world’s nicest jazz snob. (I can’t help it if jazz is the greatest. Some things are just true!)

During those years in high school when jazz became so important to me, there was a group of musicians on the scene in New York who became known as the “Young Lions.” They played amazing music that revitalized and rejuvenated jazz, bringing many of the great musicians from the late 60s and early 70s (like Dexter Gordon) back onto the scene to play with them. They inspired a generation of jazz fans like me. Musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Mulgrew Miller, Russel Malone, and Bobby Watson. Roy Hargrove was a giant among the lions.

I’ll never forget the evening at the Gem Theater when I watched Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, John Patitucci (one of my bass idols), Brian Blade, and Roy Hargrove perform as part of Herbie’s Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall album tour. I went expecting to spend the evening in awe of Patitucci. I’ve always been a huge fan of Herbie Hancock. Brian Blade is my favorite living jazz drummer. Michael Brecker was an incredible jazz savant. But the thing that impressed me the most throughout the night was Roy Hargrove. On stage with jazz legends at the top of their instrumental fields, he outshone them all. His solos were amazing journeys of poetry and emotion, full of fire. I went in expecting to see one of my favorite bassists blow me away. I left deeply touched by Roy Hargove’s music.

Years later during a difficult time in my life I discovered the album Earfood. I spent many hours listening to it. More than any album since Joshua Redman it became an anchor that could bring me up when I felt down.

It’s shocking when someone dies so young. There was so much music left for him to play.

Fundraising for a Local Nonprofit Is the Worst

Over the past 11 months I have served as the president of the board of a small 501(3)c nonprofit in my hometown, the Many Moods Choir and Orchestra. Each Christmas season we perform two free concerts for the community. The orchestra and choir are all volunteers who give up time on during for months worth of Saturdays to rehearse together. (This doesn’t include all the personal practice time involved. The music we play is hard! I’m currently nursing sore arms, a sure symptom of a string bass player who plays much more vigorously, and less frequently, than he should.)

Let me be clear on one point: the people are great. This is my fifth year participating and the reason I will continue to participate as long as the group is around. It’s inspiring to see the passion and devotion of so many people who, like me, love music but don’t get to play or perform often.

It’s also amazing to be part of a group that brings together people from all parts of our community and of many different faiths. Many of us, like me, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but we also have Baptists, Methodists, non-denominational Christians, and others who aren’t religious. The music and the joy of the Christmas season brings us together in a wonderful experience each year.

Wherefore art thou $$ ?

Here’s the rub: raising money for a small nonprofit is really hard. We don’t have many expenses, but the ones we do have aren’t going away. Music rental is about 85% of our annual expenditure. There aren’t many Christmas pieces for full symphony orchestra and choir, and the Many Moods of Christmas by Robert Shaw has defined our group from day one. It is an amazing piece of music, challenging and exciting. It is also nearly impossible to buy a copy of and the one music rental shop that owns it knows they have us over a barrel. I’m sure they love our little group. We perform a fairly obscure piece that would otherwise gather dust in their library, and both of us know there’s nowhere else to get the music. (Trust me, we’ve looked everywhere.)

Then there are the normal expenses associated with putting a public performance: venue insurance, printing programs, decorations, etc. There are the fees to maintain our nonprofit status with the state of Missouri. I would love to do other little things too, like providing the members of the group with a gift bag, or buying lunch for the board during board meetings. Not necessary at all, but it sure would be nice.

Where our donations come from

So where does a small nonprofit that isn’t curing world hunger, providing clean water, or pushing for political reform get money? So far it’s mostly been through other nonprofits. Our main sponsor is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which gives us a place to rehearse, pays our performance insurance, as well as a monetary donation. This year they are also providing place for our performances. Other churches in the area have helped in the past as well. The Northland Cathedral sponsored our performance last year and invited us back this year. (Unfortunately the dates didn’t work out this year.) William Jewell College helped us with a rehearsal venue and a deep discount on the performance venue in past years.

The gap has been made up by members of the board. The good men and women who already volunteer so many hours throughout the year often end up paying out of pocket to make sure we can pay all of our expenses. This comes after we tried garage sales, donation dinners, selling coupon books, and asking for donations at the performance.

What we’re trying now

Price Chopper Grocery Grab

This year we found a program through a local grocery store chain, Price Chopper. They offer a “grocery grab” contest which involves the nonprofit selling a $5 coupon to consumers for $5, along with an entry for a chance to run through the store and throw whatever you want into your cart. (My mom found this actually. She bought a coupon from a boy scout troop and ended up getting to run through the store. Steaks at my parents house for a couple of weeks!) This is incredibly generous, and will most likely cover the gap for us this year.

AmazonSmile

Amazon has a cool program called AmazonSmile. Amazon customers can go to smile.amazon.com instead amazon.com, and a percentage of their purchases goes to the charity or nonprofit of their choice. Registration was really easy, though the amount of donations has not been huge. (But it’s free money, so we’re not complaining!) The hardest thing here is to remember to go to the smile site instead of regular Amazon.

Ads in our program

Our performances are always well attended. This year we are trying out selling ad space to local businesses in the program. If you’ve ever been to a major symphony performance you’ll recognize this tactic; it’s sometimes hard to find the program notes among the pages of ads. I hope the businesses will find some value in this.

Donations on our site

Our website in a new addition this year. This gives us a central place to recruit, post information, and take donations. DreamHost has an amazing free hosting plan for nonprofits that includes a free domain registration. WordPress is the CMS for the site, and Stripe powers the donations.

What else can we do? If you have suggestions or know of other ways to fundraise I would love to hear them.