“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of the best mission statements ever crafted 235 years ago today. The clarion call to the American Dream. Our chief founding officers got that one right back then, but today is America on track?
The American Dream itself is in question. And our balanced scorecard is not doing so hot. It turns out that a in recent OECD study on “life satisfaction” and “happiness”, the United States failed to make the top ten.
Some lessons for pursuing happiness do come from embracing failure. Appreciating the gritty realities and problems, failures if you will, of life are clinically proven to make you happier. Does that mean that you spend all day wallowing in whatever misery you can find? The yin and yang of happiness is accepting shortcomings while dreaming of possibilities. Like all balancing acts, this one is hard to maintain. The forces of aspiration and hope that dreams inspire hazardously detract one from remaining grounded, while the forces of realism undermine lofty dreams and hopes. In fact the OECD highlights ‘balance’ as a critical determinant in the Happiness Index: “The happiest countries seem to be places where there is a good balance of work and leisure time.”
So I really mean it when I wish America a HAPPY birthday.
Tim Minchin isn’t shy about kicking off a quarter-life crisis for college graduates out there. He delivers one of my favourite speeches is to the University of Western Australia centering largely on the rampant destruction of young dreams…
- You don’t have to have a dream. Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine, if you have something that you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart – go for it. After all, it’s something to do with your time. Chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one, it will take you most of your life to achieve so that by the time you get to it and you are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you will be almost dead so it won’t matter. I never really had one of these dreams so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just remember that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of longterm dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
- Don’t Seek Happiness. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content.
- Remember, It’s All Luck – You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces…Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.:
- Be Hard On Your Opinions – We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts…Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.”
These sentiments were echoes by a series of tweets by Marc Andreessen this past week which counselled…
- Thesis: “Do what you love” / “Follow your passion” is dangerous and destructive career advice.
- We tend to hear is from (a) Highly successful people who (b) Have become successful doing what they love.
- The problem is that we do NOT hear from people who have failed to become successful by doing what they love.
- Particularly pernicious problem in tournament-style fields with a few big winners & lots of losers: media, athletics, start-ups.
- Better career advice may be ”Do what contributes” – focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs. just one’s own ego.
- People who contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do – and in field with high remuneration, make the most $.
- Perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself – perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture?
- Requires delayed gratification – may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world vs. short-term happiness.
“I prefer to embrace my ignorance…I might be one of the least credible people on Earth.” – Scott Adams
One of my favourite writers devoting an entire book to the concept of embracing failure. Such an insightful and enjoyable read that I have bought several copies to give to friends and family. It is definitely the book that I wish someone had given me when I was young. This un-self-help book has more gritty smarts than most buzzword rehashing guru tomes. And it’s funny to boot.
The centrepiece of the book is the notion that “Goals are for losers.” Like much of Adams’ caricature drawing illustration, it is a bit of an exaggeration to make a point. The moral of the story is really that the means matter more than ends. Not so much a Zen-like “the journey is more important than the destination”, but more “focusing on the journey gets you to the best destination.”
Often the Leadership/Management debate is frames is framed along these lines, ie. Leaders pursue ends, Managers pursue means. I’m not a fan of that delineation nor would I think Adams would be given his flag-bearing campaign waged against managers (well, at least the pointed-haired ones)
Adams also goes into a range of topics such a diet, spasmodic dysphonia and affirmations which are intriguing in their own right. His concept that “energy levels” are a critical success factor in life reasonates with my life experience and parallels a number of management gurus (eg. Marcus Buckingham, Mike Pegg)
But the highlights were of course his giant bear hug embrace of failure which I’ve excerpted a few choice selections below…
ON FAILURE ITSELF
- “Over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it…Pretty much everything I know about grabbing failure by the throat and squeezing it until it coughs up a hairball of success.”
- “Failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight.”
- “I’ve long seen failure as a tool, not an outcome.”
- “Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier, and more energized. If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so that I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”
- “If you think I’m full of crap on any particular idea or another, there’s a healthy chance you’re right. But being 100 percent right isn’t my goal. I’m presenting some new ways to think about the process of finding happiness and success.”
- “Humility is your friend. When you can release your ego long enough to view your perceptions as incomplete or misleading, it gives you the freedom to imaging new and potential more useful ways of looking at the world.”
- “Most successful people had to chew through a wall at some point. Overcoming obstacles is normally an unavoidable part of the process. But you also need to know when to quit. Persistence is useful, but there’s no point in being an idiot about it.”
- “When it comes to the topic of generosity, there 3 kinds of people in the world – 1. Selfish, 2. Stupid, 3. Burden on others. That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish…If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society…It’s useful to think of your priorities in terms of concentric circles, like an archery target. In the center is your highest priority: you. If you ruin yourself, you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one. The next ring – and your second biggest priority – is economics. That includes your job, your investments, and even your house…If you don’t get your personal financial engine working right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.”
- “Most people think they have perfectly good bullshit detectors. But if that were the case, trial juries would always be unanimous, and we’d all have the same religious beliefs…When it comes to any big or complicated question, humility is the only sensible point of view.”
- “’Wow, That was brave,’ is the best and cleanest example I’ve seen in which looking at something in a different way changes everything. When the instructor switched our focus from the student’s poor speaking performance to her bravery, everything changed. Positivity is far more than a mental preference. It changes your brain, literally, and it changes the people around you. It’s the nearest thing we have to magic.”
- “My experience with hypnosis complete changed the way I view people and how I interpret the choices they make. I no longer see reason as the driver to behaviour. I see simple cause and effect, similar to the way machines operate. If you believe people use reason for the important decisions in life, you will go through like feeling confused and frustrated that others seem to have bad reasoning skills.”
- “When politicians tell lies, they know the press will call them out. They also know it doesn’t matter. Politicians understand that reason will never have much of a role in voting decisions. A lie that makes a voter feel good if more effective than a hundred rational arguments. That’s even true when the voter knows the lie is a lie.”
- (over 4 pages, he lists all of the “Cognitive Biases” found in Wikipedia to underscore the point)
- “If you want success, then figure out the price, then pay it.”
- “Another clue to talent is tolerance for risk…I was willing to take a significant personal risk for my so-called art, and this was in sharp contrast to my otherwise risk-averse lifestyle. People generally accept outsized risks only when they expect big payoffs…Where there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.”
- “I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt a player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you have to do is stay in the game long enough.”
Happy Anniversary Gapingvoid. 13 years ago today, Hugh started sharing his artistic inspirations with the then emerging digital world. His posts have inspired and illustrated many of my pieces on this blog. Foremost certainly has to be the area on “dream bubbles.” His own New York City dream had to die for his London-Marfa-Miami dream to come alive…
- “This serigraph is one of the first Jason and I did together, back in 2009…The original business-card cartoon dates back from early 2000, which was a VERY hard year for me. This is what I wrote about it at the time: ‘There are many advantages of getting older… more money and respect from the world at large being the main one. However, with all this newly found cash & kudos comes the idea that maybe the world isn’t such a nice place, after all. That maybe all that unhappiness you see on the faces of your fellow commuters is there for a reason. And no matter how much you try or how hard you work, none of that will ever change.’ Still, I suppose it’s better to know that said brutality exists, rather than burning all those calories pretending it doesn’t. I just wish I’d wised up a decade earlier than I did.”
Oliver Burkeman is becoming a bit of a bard of the breakdown. His latest Guardian article on embracing failure “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty” featured an intriguing concept…
- “There is a Japanese term, ‘mono no aware’, that translates roughly as ‘the pathos of things’: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth.”
He echoes something my best man, Rev. Clifton Thuma, shared with me back at university. What makes giving a bouquet of cut flowers special is there impermanence. Yes, they are beautiful, but if they were not impermanent, after a few giftings, most people would have all the flowers they needed in life. They are given and treasured for the fleeting time they grace our spaces.
30th Anniversary for TED today. Over three decades, many pearls of embracing failure wisdom have been shared in concise and compelling 20 minute packages. Here is a list of 13 of my favourites (and I’ve featured one of my very favourites in the video above)…
- Embrace the Shake, Phil Hansen
- On Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz
- Failing All the Way to Success, Jason Njoku
- Listening to Shame, Brene Brown
- Creative Houses from Reclaimed Stuff, Dan Phillips
- 4 Lessons in Creativity, Julie Burstein
- The Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown
- If I Should Have a Daughter, Sarah Kay
- Life Lessons Through Tinkering, Gever Tulley
- The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor
- Unintended Consequences, Edward Tenner
- Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Opportunity of Adversity, Aimee Mullins
This post is for Isley (who celebrates her birthday today) and from her. An accomplished writer with a fair share of poetry slams success under her belt. We share a lot including our fondness for Louis C.K. and this rant against the escapism of cell phones. How whenever you feel sad or lonely, you pull out the phone for a fix. His alternative therapy is just embracing the sadness…
- “Is started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone and I thought ‘you know what…don’t’. Just be sad. Just let the sadness…just stand in the way of it…and let it hit you like a truck. And I let it come and Bruce [Springsteen] [sang], and I started to just feel ‘Oh, my God.’ And I pulled over. And I just cried…like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. It was like this beautiful moment. Sadness is poetic. You are lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feeling because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has like antibodies…it has like happiness that comes. Rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad. And then I met it with true profound happiness.”
(thanks and Happy Birthday Isley)
“Half the fear of failure is of the judgement of false friends we feel compelled to impress but don’t even like” – Alain de Botton
World Philosophy Day today seems like an ideal time to re-visit one of the leading philosophers of today, himself an acolyte of embracing failure, Alain de Botton. His recent book is itself “The Consolations of Philosophy” a treatise on the broad expanse of failure in the human condition and how to embrace it. With each domain, he selects a philosopher from the ages whose own work exemplified…
- Unpopularity – Socrates: “The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic.”
- Not Having Enough Money – Epicurus – “If we have money without friends, freedom or an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
- Frustration – Seneca: “Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything, we must hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times…Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.”
- Inadequacy – Montaigne: “To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.”
- Broken Heart – Schopenhauer: “Deceptive images of a vague happiness of our dreams hover before us in capriciously selected shapes and we search in vain for their original.”
- Difficulty – Nietzsche: “We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing?”
Chet is just a maven of embracing failure, but also a master on the topic balancing two concepts that on the surface might seem opposed, but underneath really have a critical cross-dependency. Many of this dualities pivot along the same lines as Leadership (upside) and Management (downside). One of my favourites is excerpted from Chet Raymo’s book ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ in his post ‘Yearning and Learning’…
In an article on the psychological basis of belief, the psychologist James Alcock proposed that two aspects of the human brain might be called the ‘yearning unit’ and the ‘learning unit.’ He probably didn’t mean these terms to be taken literally, as referring to separate compartments of the brain, but yearning and learning are certainly central to the way we interact with the world. It is hard to imagine how we can be fully human without a little of each. Finding the proper balance between the two is a task that can keep us occupied for most of our lives.
- We yearn when we dream of fulfilment, of greater happiness, of knowing more. We yearn when we love, when we laugh, when we cry, when we pray. Yearning is wondering what is around the next bend, over the rainbow, beyond the horizon. Yearning is curiosity. Yearning is the driving force of science, philosophy, and religion.
- Learning is listening to parents, wise men, shamans. Learning is reading, going to school, traveling, doing experiments, being skeptical. Learning is looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz, touching the stove to see if it’s hot, not taking anyone’s word for it. In science, learning means trying as hard to prove that something is wrong as to prove it right, even if that something is a cherished belief.
- Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, weeping statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing ‘Newborn baby talks of Heaven’ and the like. Yearning without learning is looking for UFOs in the sky and the meaning of life in horoscopes.
- Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, dogmatic belief. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty. Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.”
Leaders are yearners; Managers are learners. Both together are needed for an inspired vision of the world.
Education in the school of life
Warning: Harsh Truths and Harsh Language
- "Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? F*ck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close."
Lessons in the classroom of life are masterfully lectured in David Wong’s “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person”…
- “Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you…It’s brutal, rude and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing… I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes…’But I’m not good at anything!’ Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking. Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result…Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just ‘love you for you’ — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life… Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created. It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him…Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.”
So where is the embracing failure in a rant about people not succeeding? Using one of the all-time classic diatribes against failure as its centrepiece. The focus in this case is on embracing the failure of “fairness.” Its failure to meet expectations, its failure to be kind. As a seasoned sales manager myself, who may not have an “$80,000 BMW” (but I do have an $80,000 television set), I don’t approve of all of the words and style of Baldwin’s speech, but the spirit of “life is not fair, life is hard, get over it, and do something productive” is one I embrace completely.
Towards the end of the piece, Wong dissects all of the things people do to avoid embracing this failure. How may do you recognise?…
- The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defence mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict…
- Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult – "Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!"
- Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message – "Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke! I watched his old rap video on YouTube and thought his rhymes sucked!" "When you get to where I am in life, you feel free to give me advice! Until then, you’re nothing but meat and guesses."
- Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content – "I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!"
- Revising Your Own History – "Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!"
- Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self – Misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.