For several years, I put one hour and fifteen seconds on a timer, pressed the Start button, and performed a daily meditation. I kept going until the timer rang.
Pushing myself to this level transformed my body, mind, and spirit. In no small part, because of the discipline I cultivated.
However, as the years went on, I abandoned the timer. Because it was just a fancy dressing for the real foundation – the meditation itself.
When I was dead broke in 2011 and recovering from a drunken debt binge, I started saving 10% of my weekly pay.
This 10% savings took priority over paying my rent. And buying food. And taking care of bills.
When my financial life transformed a couple years later, I relaxed my savings rule.
Same deal with writing. I used to commit myself to three, four, five, and then eventually six writing sessions lasting 33 minutes and 33 seconds each. Daily. Or maybe seven sessions. I forget.
Then, I cut back on using the timer, because I didn’t need it.
When you’re integrating a new practice in your life, prioritize daily discipline.
If you want to get in shape, exercise every single day. Time yourself. Record what you do.
If you’re a writer, then write every single day. For a specific amount of time or for a certain number of words. Or both.
If you want to pull your financial life together, save a certain amount of money every week. Put it in a special savings account.
However, when the habit is fully integrated into your being, don’t let your original standards handcuff you.
Take a day off from your workouts, when your body needs the recovery. Relax from writing when your creative juices need replenishing. Spend the damn money.
Double your workout intensity. Spend the entire day writing. Save half your income.
A contradiction? Didn’t I just say you can eventually relax your discipline?
There’s a subtle distinction here…
You’re not throwing out the discipline or the habit. You’re freeing yourself from the rigid scheduling you needed, to integrate that habit.
Think of a bridge getting repaired. During the repairs, it needs extra support, which can be done with bridge jacking or bridge shoring. Once the repairs are done, the extra support is removed.
At a certain point, you might not need the extra support, either. When you embody the power behind the habit, you will know what’s best for you at any given moment. It could be less… or more.
This is the stage beyond learning discipline. It’s beyond binding yourself to healthy habits. When you integrate them, you can break the mold and harness the true power you’ve developed.
Over seven years ago, I stared at my laptop screen, emitting a sound like “Aaauuughhh…”
Then I slid off my rolling chair, eased onto my apartment’s tan carpet floor, and curled into the fetal position.
It wasn’t because of a heart attack. Or receiving a disturbing email from a family member.
Instead, I had just gotten home and looked up the day’s profits from my advertising campaign. The one I’d prepared for months. The one I’d spent two weeks’ worth of pay on. At the time, I struggled to afford my rent and food. I needed that money.
Let’s rewind a few months…
In the fall of 2010, I hired a contractor to help me with an advertising campaign.
“I’m not as experienced buying ads as I am in copywriting, so I’ll work with someone,” I thought.
Smart business strategy?
Sometimes, yes. But in this case, I was scared. So instead of plowing through my fear, I threw money at the monster to placate it. Good idea? Bad? Let’s see…
The contractor charged into the project. Then he asked for more money. I clicked the PayPal button. He asked for more. I loved clicking the PayPal button. Every time, I felt a jolt of emotional relief, like applying a salve to an aching joint. That’s how I pretended to move the project forward without confronting the fear.
Every time I clicked that button, a subtle undercurrent of doubt flowed along with the relief…
Then the ad went out. After a long day at work, I scrambled home to see the results. The subtle doubt turned into panic as I stared at my computer screen. I realized I had flushed thousands of dollars and many weeks down the drain.
The contractor disappeared.
Since then, I’ve thought about that experience, to explore what lessons I could extract.
Here’s a common refrain: “You have to take risks to be successful.”
True. But you don’t have to take massive financial risks.
Many unsuccessful people back themselves into risking too much money.
Because they’re trying to replace emotional risk. They’re trying to quell fear and self-doubt instead of conquer them.
For instance, someone comes up with a product idea. He knows it will be a bestseller. So he creates a company… hires someone to design a brand… recruits a marketing team… places a large order with a manufacturer… all while staying in a safe emotional bubble…
… without ever walking up to just one person and trying to sell just one of his products.
Because that’s scary. It’s an emotional risk. Better to throw dollars at the monster, right?
Then, the product fails to sell. He goes bankrupt.
The monster’s hunger always wins.
You can’t bargain with fear. You can’t bribe it away.
The worst part is when the aspiring business owner becomes bitter. He blames luck. He blames… risk-taking.
Is he right?
Well, let’s see…
After the advertising failed to attract any customers, I could have claimed the contractor screwed me over. Or that I didn’t have enough money to take so many risks. Or that I couldn’t grow my business without venture capital.
Instead, I let out a sigh… and admitted I was scared. Instead of plowing through that fear head-on… instead of learning advertising strategies myself… I threw money at the monster. I risked money instead.
It felt so good to click that PayPal button. But the monster got hungrier…
Don’t replace emotional risk with financial risk.
Don’t throw money at fear.
Also… don’t get me wrong – hiring expert contractors can be a wonderful thing.
Today, I do zero advertising myself. The key difference is, I’m not patching over an emotional risk with a financial one. No more feeding the monster. Instead, I’m making an objective choice.
Are you spending money because you’re worried about doing something? Are you desperate to avoid its emotional pain?
If you’re farming out salesmanship because it scares you…
If you’re buying any kind of course promising “done-for-you” results…
If you’re partnering up with someone before you confirm it’s absolutely necessary…
Then, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “… you might be replacing an emotional risk with a financial one.” You might be feeding the monster.
Face the pain or fear instead. Learn how to sell. Study and practice the new skill you need rather than forking over big bucks to someone else.
If you lose? What did you lose? Some time? Some peace of mind? Maybe. But you learned plenty – without spending a damn thing. Plus, you trained yourself to spend money only from a centered place.
Wear a seatbelt. Wear a condom – or insist on one. Those are positive examples of reducing risk. But don’t try to bribe fear to reduce emotional risk. Don’t feed the monster. It’ll grow hungrier.
As I eased down the 14 flights of stairs in between reps of sprints, I found myself pondering a certain word.
A few days before, a friend told me she noticed discouragement creeping into me and she wanted to help stop that. Her phone call worked – a few minutes after we talked, I felt renewed energy surging through me.
I mulled over the word discouragement as I covered the last few flights of stairs down, before I whipped around to race back up.
Dis-courage. I’ve always liked the definition of courage as plowing through your fear, rather than the absence of fear. And doing so in the face of uncertain results and potential failure.
So, what’s discouragement?
Losing that momentum and breaking your contract with yourself.
The potential reward that inspired your courage, still exists. So are the risks and the ways to fail.
When you chose courage, you accepted those odds and decided to plow forward anyhow.
Discouragement is changing your mind when nothing else has changed except your level of pain.
By digging into the word, I put together the remedy for that state of being.
When you’re feeling discouraged, look at your situation and ask, “What has changed? The reward? The danger? The risk?”
Chances are, it’s none of the above. You’re in the thick of your task and your growth and it hurts. But pausing like this to clarify your perspective can put the pain in its place. Then, you can rekindle the courage you need to keep moving forward.
Funny note to end on: I wrote the first draft for this short article several weeks ago. Since then, the part of my life causing me to feel discouraged, completely turned around. Just as my friend said it would.
“I’m going to help you stay motivated to practice, so you can succeed.”
“But I’m already motivated. And practicing. But it’s not getting me the result I want.”
In the book Peak, the authors reveal the results of their research on athletes, musicians, and a couple guys who developed the ability to memorize really, really long strings of digits.
The authors’ goal was to discover what makes people great. What makes people masters of a certain ability. And the best way for everyone else to get there. Like playing the violin like a master. Or performing a prostatectomy without any cancer reoccurrence.
The author’s research was Malcom Gladwell’s inspiration for the now famous “10,000” rule.
Peak, however, reveals how the rule has been misinterpreted. First of all, the 10,000-hour number comes from the average amount of practice time expert violinists performed by age 20. Some had done more – some less. And this was simply by a certain age. It didn’t automatically bestow them expert status.
Plus, the research revealed simple practice was not enough. It had to be what the authors call deliberate practice. This involves consistently pushing yourself beyond the edge of your abilities, so your brain and body adapt, while getting useful feedback. For example, studying the chess matches of grandmasters and attempting to predict their moves, and studying why they did what they did, while under the watchful eye of a qualified teacher, is deliberate practice. Playing tournament chess, is not. Pushing yourself to play the banjo faster is deliberate practice. Playing a tune (diddy?) you’re already comfortable with in a concert, is not.
Not so simple and sexy as 10,000 hours, is it?
The book goes into more detail…
… but it’s still missing something.
One of the most prominent case studies, is a college-aged man who practices memorizing digits. The author read him a single digit per second, until finished. Then, the man repeated the whole string. The average person might be able to handle eight digits, which falls within our short-term memory. Through practice, however, the man was able to memorize and repeat back 82 digits flawlessly.
Peak briefly mentions how the researchers chose an athlete, assuming he’d have a natural propensity to push through a challenge. Later in the book, the authors dabble into motivation again, mentioning its importance for practice. They briefly cover setting aside time in your schedule, accountability within a group, and the drive to look good in front of others.
It’s a shallow treatment compared to their thorough studies of deliberate practice.
And that’s what I think is missing.
We now have a very clear picture of what someone must do to succeed, if they’re already psychologically, emotionally, and – dare I say – spiritually aligned with what they want to achieve. Researchers found key differences between good, expert, and world-class musicians. They got a very clear picture of… let’s call it… “the second half of the story.” These men and women have already proven they can identify and overcome their weaknesses. But what about the first half of the story? What if someone wants to learn a new skill, but has impediments that are not solved by working on the skill itself?
For example, perhaps someone wants to become an expert investor. They’d like to use deliberate practice to improve their craft, but are unknowingly dealing with a psychological self-destruct mechanism, put in place by an alcoholic mom who spent every penny of the family’s money.
Or someone who’s trying to attract the opposite sex, but whose parents felt only contempt for each other, and never spoke. This person could spend 10,000 hours in a bar with the guidance of a successful friend, but still never overcome the programming that’s doing the damage.
In both cases, it’s like someone spending 10,000 hours trying to clean up a spill, without plugging the broken pipe that’s causing the mess in the first place.
Something else is required, where the prospective expert needs to reach back, to realign what is internally out of whack, while progressing with the deliberate practice. And this work is more vital in the more important areas of life. The parts that, if not mastered, cause the most pain.
What do you care about more? Loving relationships with other people, or memorizing digits? Which has more potential for emotional and psychological hang-ups?
If therapeutic work combined with deliberate practice, we could have a complete system for helping someone become a master. And they don’t even have to start as average. Their life could be in psychological and emotional shambles. If something could help them become ready to benefit from deliberate practice, it wouldn’t just be life-changing, but life-saving.
I can’t count the number of times at a business seminar, marketing conference, fitness expo, gym, workspace, or restaurant… someone describes a skillset they achieved… and then a person in the crowd asks the magic question that guarantees failure.
They could be talking about building a business. Or losing 50 pounds. Or writing a book.
Inevitably someone will pipe up, “How much time do you spend per week, writing?” or “How much time do you spend per week, on your business?”
Which are both examples of the magic question that guarantees failure:
“How much time do you spend on [fill in the blank]?”
Wrong question. Wrong mindset. And I’m not sure if there’s a cure.
As soon as I hear that question, I know that person’s doomed to fail.
Yeah, I’m an asshole.
Yes, it’s sooo arrogant to write something like this.
I’m also right.
That question opens a doorway into the person’s thinking. It shows their brain is weighing the pros and cons of spending time writing a book. It wants to determine the bare minimum number of hours required to do something abhorrent – to barely scrape by with a positive result.
They might as well ask, “How long do I have to hold my nose and do something I hate, just to bask in the results? To hell with feeling fulfillment and enjoying the growth along the way, or aligning myself with the flow of life. Just give me the guaranteed minimum I must do. The cut-and-dried answer. I want my life’s canvas to be paint-by-numbers.”
You haven’t even started, and you’ve already projected a path of deeper and deeper suffering as you slog through hours of forcing yourself, until you finally throw your hands up in the air and quit.
If you’re asking how many hours of writing you need to put in, to write a book… then follow Nike’s advice in reverse:
Just don’t do it.
If you ask how many hours per week are required for a project to increase your income, just don’t do it.
If you ask how many hours of exercise you need to spend in the gym, to finally get in shape… just don’t do it.
Instead, take a step back. Figure out what you can do, where time commitment is a non-issue. Because you actually want to dive in and relish every moment. Or, even better, time is a non-issue because you’re obsessed with what you’re doing.
The best definition I ever heard of a writer, was from Sol Stein: “Writer’s cannot not write.”
Writers don’t ask how many hours they need to put in. They’re too busy doing it. Day after day. Because they can’t stop.
When I first began an unusual kind of standing meditation, I asked my teacher, “What’s the maximum amount of time I can do this every day, without diminishing returns?”
“There’s a guy in India who does six hours,” he said.
Think of a champion athlete. They don’t ask how many hours they need to devote to training in the arena, or the gym, because those are the only places where they feel at home.
Good luck competing with them.
Instead, figure out where others have no hope of competing with you, because you’re too obsessed with practice. Or, if that paradigm doesn’t jive with you, figure out where hours become lost because you just don’t give a shit. You’re too busy practicing.
Here are two ways how:
If I could snap my fingers and make it happen, I’d enjoy sampling the Rockstar lifestyle. I remember reading one of the Motley Crew guys saying sex with four women at once was too many, and two was too few, but three women simultaneously was just right. I wouldn’t mind verifying that. But trying to spend hours per day, and years of my life, practicing a musical instrument with that goal in mind, would be insane.
On the other hand, I cannot not write. It’s me. How many hours per week do I write? Per day? Who gives a shit? I can’t stop. It also happens to bless my life. Perfect combination. Find yours.
Again, I want to emphasize, make sure it’s something that truly is you. Don’t beat your head against the wall just because you want the toys and trinkets on the other side. Find a wall you can enjoy knocking down.
Once you do, arrange your day as best you can, so you can practice when you have the most energy. An old friend of mine taught, “Do the thing you fear, first thing in the morning.”
Here’s another version: “Do the thing you obsess over, first thing in the morning.” Or before you go to bed at night. Or whenever you’re primed for peak performance.
And don’t ask how much time you have to put in, in the morning.
Now that you know the question that dooms you to failure, you can scout out similar questions. They all revolve around minimal effort, guaranteed results, and dumping the responsibility of deep thinking onto another person. Here are a few examples:
“If I only had to pick one…”
“What’s the best way to begin?”
“What’s [anything that can be answered with a single Google search]?”
“How hard is it to…”
“Yeah BUT how do I…”
Ouch. I’ve asked questions like this, many times. See if you’ve done the same. Then compare different parts of your life – where you’ve excelled and where you’ve stumbled. Where do you ask these questions more often? And is it correlation… or causation?
“Now that you’re living in Aurora, I can give you shifts at the Parker and Smoky Hill stores. They’re closer, and we need people there,” my supervisor said.
“That’s great,” I said over the phone. “Actually, could I keep doing one shift at Broadway on Sunday, just for old time’s sake?”
When I got my job as a sign-spinner in 2011, I lived close to downtown Denver. The gold-buying business’s nearest store was on Broadway street, about 17 minutes south of where I lived.
So, five days a week, I stood on that street corner.
Broadway and Nassau. For almost nine months.
To this day, I can imagine every detail of the sidewalk, the auto shop across the street, and the weird characters that lived around.
That job became a lifeline of drudgery, which I clung to as my life shifted in scary ways. Sure, it sucked… but the mindless routine was sweet relief for me.
The street corner became a second home. Complete with memories of the time I dialed 911… sweltering in 100-degree heat… dancing in the middle of a blizzard… watching cops silently swarm the check-cashing store next door… getting assaulted by a crack head…
I loved it.
Then, when I moved to Aurora, commuting to the Broadway store didn’t make sense. I felt a pang of loss. Hence, me asking my supervisor to go back – at least once per week.
When the first Sunday came around after my move, I approached the corner to begin my shift… and something felt different.
All the energy around me felt dead. The passing cars, the occasional breeze, and everything else seemed just a bit more muted and lifeless.
“I was supposed to move on,” I thought to myself, “but I didn’t.”
After a couple more weeks to confirm this was true, I asked my supervisor to take me off Broadway.
“The end of an era,” I thought.
It seems like such a silly thing (when your life consists of waving a sign, meditating, writing, and sleeping, small things take on significance). But – in more or less overt ways – we all cling to things that are familiar, even if they’re not right for us. Because we prefer suffering we’re used to, rather than the unknown that could be better. And we romanticize lame circumstances because we doubt we can claim something better.
How often do people live in the same home for years, just because they’re “settled” and moving would be too much of a pain in the ass?
Or the same job?
The same spouse?
How often do we declare something feels right, when we’re just clinging to our comfort zone?
How often do we overstay our welcome, because we’re trying to soak in the last bits of an energy field that’s already gone?
Here’s how to tell if you are.
“Am I choosing this because it’s fulfilling for me, and part of my growth… or am I hunkering down because I’m nervous about something new? If I doubt I can have something better, is this rational or emotional? What’s my evidence?”
I didn’t ask myself those questions. So it took me an extra few weeks, to figure it out.
Some people take a few extra decades.
I did end up seeing that Broadway store a few more times. Occasionally, I had to work a shift there. Then, as the business went bankrupt, I hauled furniture out of the store and closed it.
Sometimes, if you resist change, it has a way of insisting.
“How many trucks are you guys going to unload before lunch today?!”
My co-worker and I shrugged our shoulders, as we grabbed dirty floor mats from the trailer. Ted, our boss, flashed an impish smile before walking away. He was thrilled with how much we were busting our asses.
This was circa 2014, when I unloaded trucks for a living. Every afternoon, 12 of the monsters lurched into the commercial laundry facility, pregnant with thousands of pounds of dirty pants, shirts, floor mats, and other assorted grimy stuff. The two of us unloaded them all, one by one. Then, we finished our shift with a huge trailer from Fort Collins. That required a forklift.
We threw almost everything into giant baskets that ended up weighing over 250 pounds, and sent them through a complicated conveyor system.
Some of the laundry was so nasty, we threw up as we handled it.
One truck contained clothes from a spice factory. That stuff smelled nice.
Most two-man teams could unload six or seven trucks before the first, and usually only, break.
My co-worker and I set records. One day, we managed to unload ten trucks before the “lunch break” at 6PM.
Before working that job, if you had told me the mass of stuff two people were required to move, and the time-period they had to get it done by… I would have sworn the task wasn’t humanly possible.
That job expanded my beliefs, for the human body’s capabilities.
Just yesterday I was reminded of this. While enjoying the Sky Lounge at my new apartment, I watched gym goers next door, march up and down the parking lot while carrying kettlebells. Then, I looked one block over, where a new building was under construction. There, workers hauled all kinds of metal and wood back and forth. Huh. On one side, people were paying good money to drag heavy stuff around, for their health. On the other side, people were getting paid money to drag even heavier stuff around, because that’s their job. What if the gym goers could volunteer to help the construction for an hour? I guess the local GDP would slip a bit.
Anyway. While unloading trucks, I learned what can make your daily task a joy… or torture. Here goes:
When I pondered this list a few years ago, I realized none of these items required a fancy position, or degree, or even much luck. I also realized that, if I ever had a job that prevented me from the positive side of this list (like a company with bad peeps), I’d quit. Because even a pay cut, or harder work, was worth the joy of good sleep, coffee, peeps, a future, meaning, competency, and enough food to keep me going. They’re worth more than anything, so it’d be insane not to prioritize them.
“I was scrolling through my Facebook feed…”
After my friend saw the look on my face, he followed up with, “I know… I know. But the thing is, it’s not like I’m just using Facebook all day. Actually, it’s more a form of recuperation. See, after I dived deep and did a bunch of work, I took a break. Caught up on what some friends were up to. Saw some stupid shit posted. It’s how I unwind my brain.”
Yeah, except that’s not what’s actually happening.
I understand the idea. There is a chain of logic.
Someone puts in a half hour of tough work. Okay, fine, we’ll pretend it’s an hour (are you timing yourself? I bet it’s not an hour). Then, when they begin to feel restless and a little burned out, they “take a break” by switching to the mindless puke river on Facebook.
This gives them some relief. And, after an hour (okay, fine, we’ll pretend it’s only a few minutes… you’re timing, right?) they switch back to work again.
But here’s the thing…
That’s not what’s actually happening. Internally, anyway.
You’re not giving yourself a break from burnout.
Instead, when you’ve worked with focus for half an hour, you begin inching towards the edge of your comfort zone. Your brain begins to balk at the intensity of the work. It begins to send signals of mental pain and anguish.
From here, you make a few choices.
First, you choose how to interpret those signals. Virtually all people give them a bad interpretation. They need a break!
Then, you choose what to do about it. Virtually all people give in to the Siren song of Facebook, and crash themselves on its shore.
Here’s the problem:
When you begin to feel “burnout” during some intense work, and you’re tripping towards the edge of your comfort zone, and you feel mental pain… this isn’t necessarily a danger to avoid or soothe away. Instead, it’s an opportunity to intensify your brain’s power to focus. It’s your chance to expand your comfort zone. And use both your new superpowers to build a healthier, more prosperous, more fulfilling life.
Think of it this way:
Let’s say you’re doing some bicep curls, to strengthen your arms. You’re capable of 10 repetitions with 50 pounds. As you lift the iron dumbbells over and over, the burning heats up in your muscles. By the 7th rep, you can’t ignore the searing pain. Then, during the 8th rep, as the intensity doubles… you drop the dumbbells to the floor and take a break.
“Whew, that was close!” you say. “I almost burned out! I’m glad I’m taking a break before I get back into it.”
You feel fine. And why shouldn’t you? You avoided pain, and you can claim you accomplished a workout…
… except you stopped right before the workout began to matter.* You saved yourself from going through the repetitions that would trigger your growth. Congratulations.
But, hey, you can say you’re balanced and productive.
*Exercise physiology enthusiasts can debate about what truly triggers maximal adaptation via growth – time under tension – volume – frequency – intensity – whether training to failure is good or bad… just go with the metaphor, instead.
“When the cop started knocking on my door, I knew I had to answer. They kicked me out of my room. I tried talking to the front desk, but the cop said, ‘NO. YOU NEED TO LEAVE THE PREMISES NOW.’”
That’s what David told me, when I called to find out what was going on.
Jeez, and I thought I had a frustrating time getting on the conference call.
A couple weeks earlier, David had asked to interview me about hooks in marketing and salescopy. We set a date and time.
A couple days before our interview, my apartment sent a notice that they’d be testing their siren system. They didn’t know when. But it could fall during our interview. Not exactly pleasant background noise. Even a 5% chance of the alarm blaring during our call, was unacceptable.
I found out I could lock myself in the club house’s theater room.
On the way down, the elevator lurched to a halt and I wondered if a cable would snap, rocketing me to the ground floor. I jumped out on the 1st floor. It was a premonition of things to come.
Two minutes into our call, my WIFI dropped. I called back in with my phone, breathing deep and making sure to enter all 50 or whatever digits to get back on the webinar line.
David admitted I wasn’t the only one having challenges. “I’m hosting this call from my hotel room and I asked the front desk if I could stay in my room a bit longer. They said I could, but I don’t think everyone knows. I’m getting knocks on the door.”
“Do you have the Do Not Disturb sign up? Worked for me in Vegas.”
Later, I’d find out how useless that suggestion was. But during the call, I noticed several times David disappeared for half a minute or so. I figured he had a bad connection.
After over an hour, David ended the call, his voice fading out so much that the final note of the interview was garbled noise tumbling into silence.
“Are you kidding me?” I thought.
So I called him, to find out what happened.
Turns out his connection wasn’t bad at all – at least not at first. He just muted his line, when the hotel staff began banging on his door, demanding he leave. He ignored them as best he could.
Then the cops showed up.
He didn’t ignore them. While keeping his phone close, David grabbed his things and tried reasoning with the police as they hustled him out the door. They wouldn’t even allow him to speak to the front desk.
I felt my brain re-wiring as I listened and realized how wrong my first impression was. There I was, feeling frustrated with how the call was going. And it turned out, David was holding his shit together while almost getting arrested.
“Dude, I’m jealous!” I said.
“You can reference me!” he replied.
And that’s what I’m doing now.
You don’t have to be a writer, to transform challenges into a story.
You can be someone interviewing for a job. Or going on a date. Or teaching something to your children.
What embarrassed you in the past? What caused you pain? What do you want to push away, not talk about, and hide from?
Bust it out, instead. Because, just like fears dissolving when you confront them, a painful past can become a positive force in your life, if you’re proud to share it. I hope David is.
As I raced along the side of the road, I heard the rumbling of the massive engine behind me. Little did I realize that I was moments away from receiving an open, bleeding wound.
I tried look inconspicuous. As though I weren’t in any hurry at all.
But in truth, I was 100% focused on beating that machine.
Specifically, the school bus.
Every weekday afternoon during my first two years of high school, my routine was the same. The bus dropped a few of us off at the three-way intersection at the end of Meadow Road.
Then, as we walked our separate ways, the bus began the cautious routine of backing up… lurching forward… and turning around to speed off, from whence it came.
Meanwhile, my house stood 100 yards away. My feet weren’t as swift as a vehicle on wheels. But I had the head-start. I considered it a race. With an unspoken rule: I couldn’t actually look like I was racing. No, I had to appear aloof and above it all. “Oh, did I beat the bus to my house? Funny how it just happens like that…”
So, that afternoon, I power-walked along the road, monitoring the rumbling behind me. I knew that, as soon as the engine’s shrill picked up to a fever pitch, I’d lost. The bus would blast straight past me, and charge up the hill to victory.
But that day, it sounded farther behind than usual.
I scampered onto my driveway, and then up my steps.
The shrilling began reverberating behind me. Too late for me to win? No, not if I hurried.
Up four more steps. I grabbed the screen door handle, flung it ope…
As I realized I yanked the metal edge of the door straight into the right side of my forehead, the bus roared behind me. I pretended it was business as usual… figuring that at a distance, nobody would realize what I’d done.
But I knew, so I rushed inside, and into the bathroom, to survey the damage.
The pooling blood, and dangling skin, confirmed I’d given myself a minor scalp injury.
So, the wound didn’t come from the bus…
… but my own stupidity, curtesy the misuse of a screen door.
After a brief reminder of the human body’s fragility – and washing myself off – I applied a band-aid. The next morning, even though I didn’t need it, I put on another band-aid. I figured that’d look better than a weird head scab. I don’t remember anyone asking me about it.
About 15 years later, there’s still a subtle scar.
This afternoon, when I looked in the mirror at the Denver International Airport, just before a flight to San Jose, I was reminded of its existence. Not my first head scar either. The earliest – and far more noticeable – is directly over my Third Eye. Story for another time.
Until then, here are a few lessons I got reminded of, while looking into that mirror.
Nothing bad happens to a creator. Every little – or not so little – ding and dent help shapes your ability to create something worthwhile. It makes you less inert, so you can become the catalyst you were meant to be. This is the more real-world version of Nietzsche’s quote “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Many times, when I read that quote, I remember a certain episode of The Simpsons. Homer, after suffering a heart attack, asks Dr. Hibbert, “Yeah but what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger, right?”
“Oh no quite the opposite! It’s made you weak as a kitten,” Dr. Hibbert replies.
Homer’s doctor might be right about your health. But what doesn’t kill you, can make you a better creator.
I was so desperate to beat that bus, I hit myself in the head with the door I was trying to yank out of my head’s way.
This example makes it easy to see how stupid it is to scramble.
When the scrambling is subtler, catching yourself in the act is trickier. Like if you’re desperate to get a job, and inadvertently repel employers. Or you scramble to find the right team member, and you drive away an A-player from ever working with you.
In those situations, you lose the benefit of the immediate whack to the head, so you never realize you were yanking too hard, and not paying attention.
You were using force instead of being empowered.
This is where the skill of discernment comes in. You must move your observation through time and space, to unearth the cause and effect you’re missing. Just writing this, reminds me of how difficult this is. Especially if you’re trying to resolve something causing you pain. Yet this is one of the most valuable skills on this earthly plane.
(Just now, as I paused from writing mid-flight – the captain announced to fasten our seatbelts. We shot into the worst turbulence I’ve felt in many dozens of flights. My stomach flip-flopped as if barreling through a roller-coaster ride. I wondered if the pilot were hiding the truth – that something was very wrong, and we’d plummet to the earth soon. I considered my options, remembering that being centered counts more in a crisis. Could I stay rational? Yes. At least, so far. Chances are, what you’re reading is not a posthumous publication, from a recovered Microsoft Surface Pro from the crash site – so we came out fine.)
Hitting my head caused barely any pain. But the evidence remains, years later.
Some agonizing events – like 2nd degree burns on my hand and foot – are now invisible to the naked eye.
Same with your psychology. Sometimes, it wasn’t the devastating humiliation, or the attack, or the betrayal, that changed your wiring. Instead, it was a symptom. The real trigger was a mere snowflake, that caused the avalanche.
So who cares? Perhaps because this can help shift your mindset from “I’m working to resolve this big, horrible thing” to “I’m re-writing a tape in my head, which is a challenge but I’m certainly up to the task.”