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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Leave No Asset Unharvested

The other day I was listening to an interview with a successful cartoon voice actor. When asked about his work experience at a major television network, he said the best about his job was, they used every part of him like a buffalo.

We should all be lucky enough to work that way.

Firing on all cylinders, making use of everything we are, exploiting talents we didn’t know we had, keeping all of our passions in play, using our strengths to do what we do best and leaving no faculty untapped.

Just like the indigenous people.

According to the book The Mystic Warriorsof the Plains, two hundred years ago, buffalo actually outnumbered humans by a factor of twenty. It’s no surprise, then, that they became a veritable one stop shop for the early settlers. Clocking in at no less than two thousand pounds, buffalo were used for just about everything:

The meat? Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
The tail? Fly brushes, lodge decorations and whips.
The buckskin? Clothing, lance covers, bags and cases.
The hooves? Glue, rattles, hatchets or butchering mallets.
The horns? Cups, fire carriers, spoons, ladles, signals and toys.
The hair? Headdresses, saddle filler, pillows, rope and ornaments.

The dung? Fuel for cooking and heating.
The sinew? Ropes, cords, bow strings and thread.
The innards? Containers, tobacco pouches and baby rattles.
The bones? Needles, ground pegs, decorations and religion artifacts.
The tallow? Healing ointments, mixing paints, food sealers and glue.
The rawhide? Medicine bags, shields, buckets, knife cases and horse stirrups.

That’s what you call creating value. In the today’s culture, the buffalo would make employee of the month, every month, until they retired.

And so the question is, in a world constantly conspiring to make us less than we are, filled with people invested in keeping us in our lane, how can we be more like the buffalo? How can we avoid limiting ourselves to one vision of our capabilities?
Fortunately, there’s no right way to do it. There are as many career paths as there are people to take them. Let’s explore a few of them.

A few years ago, I had two epiphanies.

First, that I was bored, burned out and lonely after working for myself for twelve straight years. Second, that I had no desire to scale in order to burn out even more.

I decided to go on summer sabbatical, in search of the next stone on my professional path and discern the future horizon of my work. During those three months, I read a book that had a profound effect on my decision called The Startup of You, written by Reid Hoffman, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and the cofounder of LinkedIn. His observations were as follows:

“Instead of locking yourself into a single career path, keeping your career in permanent beta, forcing yourself to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, and that you will need to adapt and evolve.”

Eventually, I made the decision to stay true my entrepreneurial spirit, while still enlarging my concept of work itself. I ended up taking a full time job that allowed me to continue to expand my journey by day, while holding onto my own unique brand, business and artistic endeavors by night.

This couldn’t have been a healthier path for me. Embracing the best of both worlds, holding down a day job, but also keeping all my passions in play by investing in multiple containers of meaning, was incredibly satisfying. Because even though I changed my narrative to connote a different meaning, it was still one that remained true to reality.

I’m reminded of something my mentor said that I’ll never forget:

“The definition of work, of career, of what is and is not a business, are forever altered and can be molded to fit anything that excites and feeds your soul, if you choose to explore it intentionally. Your option for how to create fulfilling work is only limited by your imagination’s ability to create scenarios that excite you.”

So that’s one path.

But what about this one?

Jared Leto, who first achieved mainstream recognition as an actor in the nineties, also successfully pursued careers as a musician, director, producer, activist, philanthropist, photographer, filmmaker and businessman.

He’s one of my favorite multi hyphenates. Plus he has dreamy eyes.

During a recent interview, he said that a few years ago, he sought out to make another film for the first time in four years, just to see of there was anything else left in that world for him.

Apparently, there was.

Leto’s groundbreaking performance as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club received critical acclaim and earned him an Oscar, Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actor’s Guild Award.

But the best part was, once award season was over, he was back on tour with his band, traveling the world, playing music for millions of screaming fans.

Leto proves that we have a responsibility to remake ourselves as we grow and as the world changes. To allow ourselves the freedom to change as we discover. To evaluate new opportunities as they present themselves. And to consider our evolving intellectual and experiential assets, always willing to change direction based on what we’ve learned. Even if that means circling back to something we haven’t done in years.

There’s a fantastic passage in The Artist’s Way about very idea, about remaking ourselves every few years in order to pursue something exciting and new:

“In order to grow as artists, we must be willing to risk. We must try to do something more and larger than what we have done before. We cannot continue indefinitely to replicate the successes of our past. Great careers are characterized by great risks. It takes courage to jettison the mantle of what we have done well for the chance to grab at the cape of what we might do even better. We cannot play it safe and expand as artists at the same time. We must risk expanding our territory.”

So that’s another path.

But what about this one?

A career, after all, is the feedback about the self that comes in response to the work. And sometimes that means gaining clarity around what’s not for us.

During a recent public radio interview, Jerry Seinfeld was asked if he ever considered a movie career, to which he replied, “What I do is the only thing that makes sense to me. I’m a standup comedian, and that’s what I call myself. As for acting, I don’t think the world needs me to do that.”

I like a man who knows who he is.

Which doesn’t mean Jerry’s not exploring new ways of being an artist, he simply doesn’t see another corridor for himself right now. And you have to respect that kind of artistic boundary.

So that’s another path.

And the good news is, there are a thousand more. And no two are the same. Each one comes replete with its unique set of challenges, rewards, experiences and learnings.

But whatever path you choose––or perhaps whatever path chooses you––what matters most is that you make use of everything you are.

The way I see it, as long as you’re going to spend you life weaving a story about yourself, you may as well blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation.

Be like the mighty buffalo.

Leave no asset unharvested.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

How to Initiate Momentum in the Creative Process

We’ve already explored how to get your body of work onto the runway with the help of gravitational order. That’s one kind of momentum.

We’ve also talked about treating your work as a daily practice and professionalizing your creative process through commitment. That’s another kind of momentum.

Next, we’re going to approach momentum from a project based level, looking at strategies to make it a powerful driving force for your work.

I was recently reading an interview in The Paris Review with Robert Crumb, the cartoonist who helped spawn the indie print culture of zines, graphic novels and comics, and he described his process in the following way:

“Getting started is like getting a rocket off the ground. You need the most energy and the most push to get moving, but once you’re up there and you’re going, then it’s easier to keep it going.”

Most creators have felt this way at some point. And the question has always been, exactly how do you get the rocket of the ground?

As someone who’s started a lot of things in his career, I’m happy to report:

You don’t need to have everything figured out, you just have to put energy toward it.

Something, anything, that initiates the launch sequence, immediately plunges you into action and builds momentum.

Eric Maisel, the world’s foremost creativity and meaning making coach, suggests that we choose projects and obsessions with the potential to galvanize us. Productively obsessing over ideas generates internal pressure that vexes and consumes us in a healthy way, he says. In the book Brainstorm, his case studies show that when we really bite into a mental task, we generate a demand. This demand amounts to real pressure, as real as any pressure a human can generate, and that builds momentum, turning our idea into some appropriate reality.

I struggled with this a few months ago when I found myself stuck in creative limbo.

If you’ve never been there before, it’s a bizarre existential space.

Not a block, per se, but more of a nervous disquiet. A lack of excitement around not having discovering something worth doing. A knowledge that you’re on the verge of a fiery new artistic pursuit, but an inability to turn yourself over to some pressing, meaningful creative demand.

In short, the opposite of momentum.

During my period of creative limbo, however, I had lunch with a professor friend of mine, and to my surprise, that became the conversation that galvanized me.

Jim was telling me how he landed his job as an instructor at the university. Great story. Turns out, a serendipitous encounter with one of the department heads led to a phone call, which led to a meeting, which led to an interesting opportunity for Jim to develop new curriculum for the business school.

And I remember thinking to myself, developing curriculum, now there’s an interesting project. There’s something that might be worth obsessing over.

By the time I returned home from lunch, the launch sequence had initiated. I literally felt the momentum accumulating inside of me as I bit into the mental task of creating curriculum. For what and for whom, I wasn’t sure yet. But it didn’t matter, because that lunch meeting snapped me out my creative limbo and generated the internal demand I needed to move forward.

Since that fateful day, I’ve been on fire creatively.

Not because I had the idea figured out, but because I put energy toward it.

That’s momentum.

Now, on a more tangible scale, it’s also possible to activate momentum through some kind of physical object.

Tom Kelly, founder of the largest innovation firm in the world, wrote a fascinating book about the beginning of the creative process. His theory is, it’s all about prototyping. Prototyping allows people to make progress before they know what progress looked like. What counts, he says, is never wasting time, moving the ball forward, opening new possibilities of discovery and achieving some part of your goal, albeit a small one.

Interestingly, the word prototype comes from the Latin term prototypus, which translates to, “first impression or original form.” Meaning, building momentum doesn’t always require something as complex and detailed as an actual rocket, it just has to add energy to the system.

You might say that what momentum needs, is a moment.

Whenever I finish the first draft of a new writing project, like the aforementioned curriculum, for example, my favorite ritual is to print out a hard copy of the document and organize it into a beautiful leather binder. That’s my moment. That’s my prototype for moving the ball forward.

Since I’ve been loyal to this process for over a decade, I’ve found the experience of watching a printer spit out three hundred pages of creative work that I’ve personally labored over, holding those hot little babies in my hands and then inhaling the sweet smell of satisfaction, to be one of the great joys of being a writer.

It’s the birth of a creative brainchild. It’s finally here. And in that instant, I don’t care if the work is good, I don’t care if it sells, I don’t even care if people like it, because it’s my moment and nobody can take it away from me.

And on a practical level, the binder also works as a multifunctional device:

First, as a cognitive device, the binder tricks my brain into thinking that I have my act together, even when I have no idea where the project is going.

Second, as a commitment device, the binder makes the effects of my work real and visible for all to see, even in the early stages of production.

Third, as a confidence device, the binder creates a visual record of progress that gives me a psychological pat on the back and saturates my consciousness with victory.

Fourth, as a capturing device, the binder memorializes the process of writing my ideas down, making them more real and imprinting them deeply in my psyche.

Fifth, as a competence device, the binder leverages the tangibility of manual labor to instill a sense of agency and a context of sufficiency.

All of which build momentum.

The binder is the moment that adds energy to the system.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite books, Shop Class as Soulcraft, a powerful reflection on how we can live more concretely in an ever more abstract world. Matt Crawford, who also happens to work as a mechanic, explains that a kind of spiritedness is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, and that getting an adequate grasp on the world intellectually depends on getting a handle on it in a literal and active sense. Producing material things, he writes, accumulates a sense of psychic nourishment and creates a communion with the future.

I couldn’t agree more.

And admittedly, I’m just a writer who prints out sheets of paper and organizes them into a binder. That’s certainly not the same as a sweaty tradesman building tractor parts in a welding shop. But while I may not be laboring in the traditional sense, the binder sure beats pushing pixels all day. And you can only get so far staring at a screen. The resolution of the paper page is much higher.

What matters, is that the binder builds momentum.

It gives my mental obsession a physical expression.

And so, whatever ritual or process or prototype you use to get the ball rolling on your work––mental or physical––remember that it’s not about getting everything right, it’s about getting something moving in the right direction.
                            
Because you don’t need an idea, you need an “I did.”

Put energy toward your idea.

Initiate the launch sequence and send your creative rocket into the sky.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Raise your hand, break your heart, grow your brain

Food is life’s binding agent.

It’s also an extremely difficult way to make a living.

Manhattan, for example, has twenty four thousand restaurants. But despite profound competition, the city still receives almost five thousand new applicants each year. Meaning the annual turnover is close to twenty percent.

Yikes.

This topic is fresh in my mind because I recently attended a small business panel for food entrepreneurs. The speakers ranged from chefs to farmers to distributors to public health officials to food truck operators. Pretty compelling stuff. Especially for someone who knows nothing about the food industry. I remember one of the restaurant owners summarizing her work experience with the following question:

How am I going to sell eight hundred of these sandwiches, at seven different locations, and have them all taste exactly the same?

Imagine asking yourself that question on a daily basis.

Yikes.

Then again, every small business owner has their own version of that moment. It comes with the territory. When you raise your hand to go down the entrepreneurial road, you end up slaying dragons you never could have imagined.

Kevin Smith, filmmaker and podcast king, uses a delicious metaphor in his book to describe this experience:

Imagine your plan was to walk down to the convenience store to get some chocolate milk, and while you were there, you were gifted with an entire milk production facility to run, complete with chocolatizer for all the milk. And from that moment forward, for twenty years, chocolate milk became your life. The making of, sampling of, bottling of, vending of, marketing of, balance sheets of, and while you love it all, this unexpected gift of a thriving chocolate milk concern, every once in a while, in the midst of it all, you think, “How’d I get here? All I wanted some chocolate milk.”

Proving, that if you stick around long enough, you’ll see everything.

And it’s not just the food industry, either.

After more than a decade running my publishing and consulting company, I’ve certainly seen my share of these moments, including, printing and shipping abominations, major television networks screwing me over, email and social media hackers, website shutdowns, consecutive years of revenue loss, multiple tax audits, septic tanks flooding my inventory storage, cockroaches living inside cases of my books, hatemail and death threats, stress induced hospital visits, vigilante newsletter subscribers threatening to report me to the government for not removing their name from my list, foreign customs officers confiscating my products at the border, major industry disruptions that obfuscated my business model, clients paying their bills five months late, one client who disappeared and never paid their bill at all, full blown technology meltdowns during live performances, one actual fire during a live performance, and my personal favorite, the disgruntled vendor who played a practical joke on my company that backfired and nearly cost me company fifteen thousand dollars.

And all I wanted was to write a book.

But that’s what entrepreneurs do.

We raise our hands.

The upside is, no matter how many times our heart breaks along the way, we’re still becoming more valuable as time goes on. Every one of those painful experiences teaches us something that becomes a shortcut for understanding something else. Everything we do is designed to give us a stronger base.

Scott Adams famously said that he never lets failure leave until he picks its pocket. He doesn’t want his failures to simply make him stronger, but to make him better able to survive future challenges. His job, he says, is to grab failure by the throat and squeeze it until it coughs up a hairball of success.

Damn right.

Back when I thought online training was the future of corporate learning and development, I invested considerable amounts of time, money and energy building my own production studio and proprietary video platform. 

Unfortunately, my prediction was wrong. Online training wasn’t the future I thought it was. Corporate clients just weren’t buying it. Literally or figuratively. With the exception of a few small scale projects, I never really cracked the online training code, despite my best efforts to create a great product.

So after five years, I finally turned enough of a profit to break even.

But along the way, I learned video production and design skills, unearthed talents I didn’t know I had, extended my brand and body of work into new places, and kicked open the door to future business opportunities that actually did make money. I also invented a new form of media to circulate my views and extend my sentiments and make my ideas accessible to as many people as possible. I built something I was proud of and that I can point to, and the person I became along the way is something nobody can take away from me. 

Ultimately, the summation of those experiences improved my personal value no matter how the project itself did, and the insight and perspective those experiences granted me have widened the dimensions of my world and intensified my participation in life.

So I viewed the experience as a net gain.

Because that’s what small business people do.

Raise your hand, break your heart, grow your brain.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust

As retail goes, so goes the world. 

The everyday interactions we have with cashiers, waitresses, taxi drivers, front desk attendants, customer service reps and sales associates are perfect microcosms of our society, both good and bad. 

One day we walk into a store whose employees never let us forget how it feels to be good people. They act as if it’s an honor to spend time with their customers. And it restores our faith in humanity, adding lightness to the rest of the morning. 

Money well spent. 

The next day, we spend an hour on the phone with a call center agent who treats us like an inconvenient interruption to their redundant system of efficient operation. They act as if we’re interfering with them trying to run a business. And it crushes our spirits, souring the entire afternoon. 

Thanks for caring. 

And so, retail is one of those societal institutions that becomes the great mood changer, the ultimate barometer of humanity.

Especially when it comes to trust.

In my neighborhood, for example, most of the bodegas are cash only. Or they have a minimum credit card balance.

But since I don’t always carry cash to buy my many snacks, shopping can actually become a stressful experience. Sometimes I have to run across the street to get money. Sometimes I have to buy a bunch of groceries to hike up the bill. Sometimes I just walk out and buy food at a bigger chain store that accepts credit card.

Either way, it’s hassle. 

But every once in a while, I encounter a shop owner who suggests another option. An easier, friendlier, more memorable exchange. And an approach to business that restores my faith in humanity.

You come back tomorrow, you pay me then, he says. 

That’s trust. That’s service. That’s human. In fact, that’s way business was done long before credit cards were invented. And so, I always come back to those kinds of stores the next, even if it’s only to repay fifty cents.

Because it’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

Cash only policies are great for that reason. They give people a chance to be people. They give businesses a chance to, as my mentor used to say, be ten cents more trusted, not ten cents less expensive.

The result is, when you trust people, they become what you tell them you expect. That’s how we’re wired. It’s not magic, it’s a psychological primer for future performance. When you trust someone, their brain releases the hormone oxytocin, which causes a sense of well being and a desire to reciprocate.

Consider the following reviews on Yelp:

San Francisco – “The deli owner let me borrow his own wine opener for a night because they didn’t have any in stock, and trusted me to bring it back.”

Portland –“I placed an order over the phone, and they actually trusted me to send a check in the mail even after they delivered the balloons.”

Chicago – “Instead of canceling my order, they loaned me the quesadilla and trusted me to pay them back the next day.”

And it’s interesting to note, all of the reviewers gave the retailers five stars.

It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

I was watching recent interview with Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter. He was discussing issue of trust as it pertained to their platform’s massive organizing power, making the following observation: “People are basically good, and if we give them the right tools, they’ll prove it to us every day.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Better to be occasionally disappointed than walk around with your guard up. Better to approach others as already being trustworthy, until they’ve given you reasons not to. Better to think the best of people, to see everyone as good until proven otherwise, in the hopes that your belief will encourage them reveal their best selves.

It’s just easier. And cheaper. Trust burns fewer calories.

I’m reminded of the first time I traveled to Sydney.

I stumbled into a cupcake shop one morning. When the cashier rang me up, I clumsily grabbed all the coins in my pocket, took one look at their confusing shapes and colors, noticed the long line behind me, and then turned to cashier and said, “Oh, here, can you just do it?”

She smiled back, picked out the coins she needed and completed the transaction.

“No worries,” she said.

Don’t you just love that? I’ve traveled all around the world, and it always works. Because everybody is the same everywhere. The expectation of trust psychologically primes people respond in manner that’s honorable. Next time you go abroad, try holding out a hand full of money. It’s fascinating social experiment and a beautiful way to connect with a complete stranger in very human, vulnerable way.

Because it’s not about the transaction, it’s about the trust.

The exciting part is, now that we’re officially entered into the sharing economy, we’re starting to see entire business models and technology platforms and retail operating built on top of this very type of trust.

We’re letting complete strangers sleep and eat and bathe in our homes, loaning our bikes and cars to people we’ve never met before, delegating mundane tasks to microfreelancers from across the globe, sharing and trusting our secrets with thousands of people we hardly know and leaning on existing customers of a brand to tell us whether or not we should become one ourselves.

It appears that depositing and withdrawing from our social capital accounts has become a way of life and a way of business.

Perhaps trust isn’t the endangered species we thought it was.

If it’s good enough for retail, it’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stress is the Culprit, Expectation is the Accomplice

When I first started my company, I had a bad habit of counting my chickens before they hatched. The minute a request would come in about a prospective client, a new project or a potential business opportunity, in my mind, the deal was already done. 

Let me give that no thought. Sounds great. Count me in. Sign the contract. Put it on the schedule. Tell the world. It's happening. 

That’s just how I’m wired. Expectation overload. Ever since I was four years old, I was the easily excitable, overly optimistic, fundamentally affirmative kid who had the answer before the question was asked.

I couldn’t say yes fast enough. 

Which is cute when you’re a kid, but when you’re trying to run a company, counting your chickens before they hatch can royally damage the coupe.

There’s the stress of holding too much expectation before something happens. There’s devastation of having your hopes crushed when something doesn’t happen. There’s the humiliation of having to recant big news because it didn’t happen. And there’s self torture when you dwell on why something should have happened.

Not good for business.

And, not good for your body, either.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, one of the global authorities on the brain’s reward system, has conducted significant research on the dangers of expectation. His work explores the relationship between reward and risk information in the brain.

In one particular study, Schultz found that if someone was expecting a reward and they didn’t get it, their dopamine levels fell steeply. And, since dopamine is affectionately known as “the neurotransmitter of desire,” this unpleasantness felt a lot like pain. Often spinning a person into a funk that lasts for days. In fact, according to an analysis of his study on Psychology Today, once dopamine levels plummet in these instances, a person can also experience a mild threat response, reducing basic motor functioning for deliberate tasks.

Schultz couldn’t be more right.

For many years, expectation was my drug of choice. I couldn’t kick that sweet candy if my life depended on it.

Until my my life actually did.

I had reached a point in my life where I was so infatuated with the future, so intoxicated with the prospect of good things happening, so intent on living life perpetually poised in a ballet of expectation, I was cheating on the present with a mistress called the future. And like any torrid love affair, what started out as an innocent game slowly grew into a dangerous obsession.

And then one day, I woke up and literally couldn’t breathe. My left lung had collapsed.

Before I knew it, I was being wheeled into the emergency room.

A few hours later, I woke with a tube in my chest tube and morphine drip. And I remember asking the doctor if the collapsed lung was stress related.

He said no.

I called bullshit. 

Because stress is always the culprit. And expectation is often the accomplice.

And so, something I’ve had to learn over the years­­ is how to empty myself of expectation. How to let go of the need for outcomes and to open myself whatever wants to come forward.

One of my favorite tools for doing so is Ten Zen Seconds, a book, a practice, an approach to mindfulness and an invitation to live a more centered, grounded, and meaningful life. Since becoming a practitioner several years ago, now not single a day goes by where I don’t use the tools in some way.

The way it works is, you use a single deep breath as a ten second container for a specific thought, matching the rhythm of your respiration to the symmetry of your words. For example, one of the incantations is, “I expect nothing.”

Those three words changed my life.

First, expecting nothing created contentment, as I felt grateful for what I had. Second, expecting nothing built humility, as I surrendered control. Third, expecting nothing invited calmness, as I freed myself from meeting standards. Fourth, expecting nothing allowed acceptance, as I was saying yes to what is. Lastly, expecting nothing enabled stability, as I rarely felt knocked off center.

That’s what’s possible when we shake off the shackles of expectation and end the habitual anticipation of outcomes.

We experience the perfect quietness of heart.

Dr. Eric Maisel, the creator of Ten Zen Seconds, explains it is a mental and emotional mistake to have expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. Desire as much as you like, try as hard as you like and plan as carefully as you like, he says, but expect nothing. If you expect nothing, you have a real shot at centering.

Keep in mind, not expecting isn’t the same thing as not caring or giving up. Expecting nothing means making the decision to focus on what needs to be done rather than outcomes. Expecting nothing means accepting that reality is under no such obligation to make you happy and give you want you want.

Which reminds me of something I learned in yoga.

When I first started taking class, my expectation manifested in the form of numbers. I started compulsively tracking how many days in a row I practiced. Which was great because it made me feel strong and committed, but after a while, all of that quantifying created an unnecessary expectation. And that started to affect the outcome of my practice. I would think to myself, wow, I’ve done yoga ten consecutive days. I bet my body will start to fatigue.

Sure enough, the next morning I would leap out of bed with searing calf cramps and race to the fridge to suck back coconut water until the pain subsided.

Funny what happens when make gods out of numbers.

All the more reason to empty yourself of expectation.

It’s interesting, the word expectation actually derives from the term expectare, which means, “To defer action.” Meaning, what expectation does is prevent us from focusing on what needs to be done, since we’re too busy obsessing about what could or should or might be done as a result.

And so, if we truly want to experience the perfect quietness of heart, we have to get rid of all that flotsam and jetsam swirling around in our heads.

I remember reading this great article called Secrets of a Trailer Guru, which profiled the legendary video editor Mark Woollen, the owner of a boutique production company that serves an elite group of filmmakers. As a guy who cuts trailers for a living, he actually isn’t a big fan of the trailer phenomenon. Woollen said, “My best experiences as a moviegoer are when I go in knowing as little as possible about a movie.”

That’s what I want my life to be.

The movie I never saw the trailer for.

Expectations are overrated.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Touched By A Hand, Struck By A Fist

The other day a friend of mine was telling a story about his wife.

Once upon a time, her indy apparel company was featured on one of the biggest television shows in the world. As the narrative often goes, within hours of the broadcast, the company received so many new orders that they couldn’t make shirts fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Instant publicity, instant credibility.

And yet, as that moment became the highlight of her career, it slowly became the hell of her career.

Because along with the accolades came the hatemail. Mountains of it. Complete strangers started coming from out of the woodwork to call this woman names and discredit her work and convince the world that her clothing was crap.

She was devastated.

And all she did was become successful.

But I’ll never forget what my friend said as he reflected on that period of his wife’s career. He posed an incredible moral question, one that lent a lot perspective to that experience:

Why is it that the moment you’re touched by a hand, you’re struck by a fist?

Ain’t that the truth.

Humans, after all, are habit machines that tend to behave predictably. And one of the patterns they fall into is, not everybody wants you to be successful. In fact, a certain population of the world is just waiting around––excitedly­­––for you to fail, because they feel disenfranchised by your success.

Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, recently talked about his company’s struggle with this very issue. He discovered that high expectations made everyone turn on him, famously saying, “People are in love with you, but then all of a sudden, they can’t wait to watch you fail.”

Of course, this isn’t a new thing. The hand/fist phenomenon has been around for years.

Davy Jones, the late musician and former teen heartthrob, once did an interview about the British Invasion, in which he notoriously said, “As soon as you get successful, people want to kick you in the balls and throw you in the back yard and wait for you to make a mistake. They just want you to be famous and then go away.”

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.

Sheesh.

The good news is, jealousy isn’t always a negative.

I read an interesting study from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called Getting to the Heart of the Green Eyed Monster, in which mental health professionals explored the history, causes and implications of jealousy. Their research showed that jealousy was a fundamental aspect of human social life, and its absence was actually a sign of pathology. At the heart of the green eyed monster, they say, is the desire to feel good about the self, and any threat thereof can have negative consequences on our well being.

Makes sense.

In fact, I would even take it one step further.

Jealousy, isn’t just normal­­––it’s necessary.

The root word is jalousie, which translates to “enthusiasm and love and longing.” Meaning, you have something I want, that upsets me, and now I’m motivated to work hard and get the same for myself, so thank you.

It’s kind of like listening to Tom Waits.

The man’s work is so brilliant and inspiring and unapologetic, that when I listen to his music, I literally become angry that I’m not as good as he is. To the point where I stop the song, go grab my guitar and songbook and try to improve my own work.

That’s jealousy. And when channeled productively, can serve the world well.

Where we run into trouble is when jealousy morphs into envy.

The derivative for that word is invidere, which translates to “casting an evil eye.” Meaning, you have something I want, that diminishes me, and now I’m determined to knock you down to feel better about myself, so fuck you.

It’s kind of like web trolls.

When my first book went viral, I received an inordinate amount of hatemail. Turns out, many people were surprisingly angry at a guy who wore a nametag everyday. And they felt the need to publish awful things about me, my work and my ideas.

Naturally, I was devastated.

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.
  
I’m just trying to make the world friendlier. Sheesh.

Fortunately, my web developer created a clever profanity filter for the guestbook on my website. He wrote code that replaced each of the web trolls’ curse words with softer phrases like pretty pink roses and cute cuddly teddy bears. Which, ironically, enraged them even more.

Anyway, that’s envy.

And unfortunately, the more success you have, the more likely people are to respond with that instead of jealousy. It’s just this weird cultural math that humans do. Almost like clockwork, as soon as someone becomes even a little bit successful, the green eyed monster whets its retributive appetite.

I was recently watching the fascinating documentary, Downloaded, written and produced by Alex Winter. This film addresses the evolution of digital media sharing on the internet. And it features exclusive interviews with software developers and musicians about controversial file sharing software, namely, Napster.

Totally inspiring, to say the least.

And although I took copious notes on the movie, there was a passage from one of the songwriters that resonated with me, especially around the idea of jealousy and envy:

“I just felt like this was one of the great moments in human history. But of course, great moments in human history usually have an opposition that is exactly proportional to their greatness.”

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.

And so, there may be no fighting the green eyed monster. Seems like these emotions and feelings are fundamental to human social life, and they’re here to stay.

What you can fight for, however, is the crucial choice to channel your jealousy into something productive, instead of crafting your envy into something hateful.   

Because either way, you’re burning calories.

Why not make them matter?