This blog is officially at an end.

The reason it was put together was basically to collect my thoughts as they popped up for later compilation.  I’ve officially drawn a line on this time period and am in the middle of fleshing these little treatises out and compiling into book form.  So I don’t anticipate posting to this blog further, at least for the time being.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve found some better ways of keeping my ideas together, so I don’t anticipate using this for further works.

Thanks to all who have read and commented.

What do you do if you wake up one day and realize that you hate your life?  Or if you just don’t find joy in living?  What if you’re so depressed, repressed, unfulfilled or apathetic that you just don’t see the point in living anymore?

If you don’t see the point in living, it’s because you’re missing it entirely.  I firmly believe the point of life is to enjoy it.  If you’re not enjoying it,  then you’re doing something wrong.   And that means you have the ability to stop doing the things that make you miserable and do the things that bring your life joy and meaning.

Your life is your creation.  It’s not something that happens to you, but something you construct.  You’re in charge of you life and the experience is under your control.  The fact is, if you feel your life is out of control, it’s because you’re refusing to take control.  It’s like being in the driver’s seat of the car, but refusing to take the wheel.   Abandoning responsibility for your own life is one of the greatest failures I can conceive.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in the world don’t agree with me on this.  This comes back in a variety of angles, all of them deeply flawed.

  • Religions are often guilty of convincing you that you need to surrender control to a deity or his mouthpieces here on earth.  “Just give all your problems to Jesus” or “let God make the choices for you”.  Or from the more dogmatic end of things, “you’re messing up your life because you won’t surrender it to God”.   I don’t know what your perspective will be on religion; but I do know that the idea of “surrender” pushed by religions today isn’t the picture of their heritage.   Frankly, Jesus told his followers not to worry about tomorrow – not to fail to give it consideration.  And the heroes of the Christian faith were not noted for their faithfulness in sitting around waiting for God to change their world for them, but for getting out and making it happen.   The goal of religious surrender is aligning your will with a higher power, not by abandoning your responsibilities.  It’s merely a decision to cooperate with what you believe is the greater good – and you can do that as a Christian, Buddhist or even as an atheist.
  • Our current social structure will often work to convince people that they’re persecuted, subjugated or hindered because of their sex, race, creed, color, religion, economic status, etc.   And in many cases, it’s true.  We don’t have an equal opportunity in the world.  It’s well proven that the best way to be a millionaire is to have parents who are. The social strata in America separates wider each passing year.   But frankly, achievement has little to do with happiness.  Plenty of people make fortunes and fame with little joy to show for it.  Satisfaction with life is something you choose to develop.
  • America’s fascination with perfection often creates a fantasy lifestyle that everyone seeks, but few achieve.  Some people become convinced that if they don’t have a perfect body, or the right level of income, or the appropriate degree of popularity that life isn’t worth living. There’s nothing wrong with making your life all it can be, but convincing yourself that it’s worthless if you’re not at the top of the hill is a guaranteed ticket to depression.  Even those who make it to the top rarely stay there.  And meanwhile, plenty of people are living lives of joy and fulfillment with potbellies, 10 year old cars and permanent anonymity.

When you’re not enjoying life, that’s emotional feedback you need to listen to.  You don’t need to dull it with drugs or therapy or escapism – the feedback is not the problem!  That’s like blaming your car for running out of gas.  Emotional feedback is there to tell you there’s an impropriety to address somewhere. You need to fix the problem, not the feedback.

You are not powerless to change. It may be tough.  You may have greater obstacles than others.  You may be running so hard fulfilling your responsibilities that you don’t think you have time to make the change.  But you always have the power to change the things that are negative in your life:

  •  If you feel negatively about your job, change it.  Talk to your superiors and get the situation where it becomes rewarding to you again.  Or quit and take a new job.  Or quit and work for yourself.
  • If you feel negatively about your financial status, change it. Budget and save.  Get a better income.  Go back to school or train for a new career.
  • If you feel negatively about your relationships, change them.  Work out the problems.  Or drop them and build others.

I know it doesn’t seem easy.  More than likely, if you’re in a bad place you’re thinking “I can’t change this because it would affect that”.  That you can’t quit your job because you depend on the income.  You can’t change your relationship because the other person’s not willing and you’re afraid of being alone.  You have so many responsibilities that you just can’t take on something new.

That’s kind of like the analogy of the man sawing fruitlessly with a dull blade – he can’t take time to sharpen the saw because he’s so busy sawing!  The fact is, you’ll make time for what’s important to you.  And when you reach the point that you realize you need to address the situation, you’ll find the means to do so.

Both of you are smart kids.  You’ll figure it out.

Just remember that you can do it.  You are not powerless to change.  In your mind, you’re probably making it more complicated than it actually will be.

Take control

Previously I discussed some physical signs to follow to help you determine when someone is lying. However, these methods don’t really serve you against someone who can overcome their conscience, who has a really well rehearsed and tested lie or who is outright sociopathic. Particularly when you enter the world of business you will encounter people who make it their living to misrepresent themselves or their products and have become very accomplished at concealing the truth. And worst of all, people who simply don’t understand their position well enough to discuss it authoritatively.

Fortunately, there’s a solid train of thought you can follow to see through many of these deceptions, in the form of questions. You can either ask these outright (for example, when confronting a salesman or someone in a business setting where it’s socially acceptable to be a hard skeptic) or work them out in your own mind in your decision making process.

The first lie detecting question is “how do you know what you know?” Is is speculation or fact? And are their authorities someone you trust?

  • “This project will take 6 weeks and cost $100,000″. How do they know this? Can I see the budget? What else might be involved that they haven’t accounted for?
  • We have the #1 product on the market” Whose opinion is this? Has there been a formal survey and who was the authority?
  • Studies reveal…” Whose studies? Who ran them and why? Were they commissioned by people who have a vested interest in the company? Especially watch out for this one in magazine articles and whitepapers – it’s very easy to skew results or take them out of context

The second question is about determining the counter argument. Every issue has more than one side, and anyone who’s researched their position will understand what the counter argument is.

  • “What’s the counter argument?” In some situations, you can just ask this outright.
  • “What are your biggest concerns and how will you address them?” Have they actually thought it through thoroughly.
  • What would convince you to have a different opinion?” This helps to drill down to how well they actually know their position.

The third is “can I have more time to consider this?” Taking time to research it yourself is always a proper response and it protects you from the con artists who try to convince you that you have to act quickly in the hopes that you won’t notice the faults in your haste.

The fourth is “can you simplify the position?” Inflated languag, jargon and obfuscation are common tools to intimidate you – the bet is that you’ll be too proud to admit you don’t understand what you’re talking about. If you don’t understand something that’s said, ask for it to be explained in simpler terms. And you can tear a sales pitch down to meaningful conversation with a few comments like “by inherent redundancy, do you mean your product has a backup power supply? And if so, can you speak plainly next time?”

And finally, ask about the things you take for granted, particularly with salesmen. Don’t assume that you know what their definition of “extended warranty” means. Don’t assume the product comes with necessary peripherals. Don’t assume the business follows standard credit terms. Plenty of people rely on your faulty assumptions to make the sale. Ask.

Of course, no line of questioning is foolproof, but with a little common sense you can work to prevent the professional liars out there from taking advantage of you.

I have too many things.  Most people in America do.   Vast amounts of things.  Just looking around my room, I see three computers, fifteen guitars, two amplifiers and various piles of music gear, a cupboard and desk with more office supplies than I will use in a year, a scanner I haven’t used in months, a printer, a fax, a television and a game console.  There are two crates of action figures in the cupboard and a desk full of craft related items.  There’s a rack of magazines I haven’t read in months and a display with 12 baseball hats on it. Aside from these goodies, every available shelf, drawer, nook and cranny are filled with decorative items of one sort or another in an effort to make sure no space sits empty.  And this is my workspace, supposedly optimized to remove distractions and get work done.

Things weren’t always this way. In my parents’ day, things were a little more rare, and thus a little more valuable.  There was one television in the house, where there are four in mine (and would have been five, had I not loaned one out).  In my parents’ house, we had tiny closets that still managed to hold our wardrobes, toys, vacuum cleaners, sports equipment, etc. My bedroom has two walk in closets and several dressers and chests, and had I not had a recent Salvation Army purging, would have been stuffed to the degree that I couldn’t find anything.   I thought I had an admirable toy collection in my childhood, but both of yours dwarf it by a factor of ten or more.  You’ve both had toys passed along to charity that were still new, simply because you didn’t have time to get to them before you outgrew them.

I know why it’s happened.  When your mother and I were young, we didn’t have a lot of money.  Material things seemed so valuable and desirable.  So when we gained money, we gained lots of things.  Having the power to accumulate all the things we desired and couldn’t have when we were younger was just intoxicating.

But as I get older, more and more I’m seeing these things as more of a burden than a joy:

  • When I had one nice suit, I kept it immaculate.  Now that I have several, some of them have problems – a missing button, a determined stain.  But they haven’t been taken care of because I can just pick up another suit from the closet.
  • When I had one guitar, I kept it in great condition – truly showcase quality.  With a multitude of them, I just don’t have time to keep them all sparkly.  Some are out of tune.  Several need string changes.  They all need dusting.  But who’s got a whole day to dedicate to keeping them up?  And in the end, I can only play one at a time.
  • I used to adore action figures, so I collected them.  Recently I packed them all up because they were so problematic.  I was so busy keeping dust off, re-attaching accessories, finding display options that I wasn’t taking any time to enjoy them.
  • Once upon a time, I could quote every lyric from every album I owned – I knew them intimately.  My collection is so large now, I’ve got a lot of albums I haven’t even heard, just taking up space.

I’m trying to turn this situation around for you, but not having a lot of luck thanks to doting grandparents and current culture’s burning need to keep putting things in your hands.  So this is a situation where I’m going to have to beg you to listen to my words instead of my example

What you don’t understand when you start to accumulate things is that the value in them is not the retail price or the volume, but the value you derive from them.  A new car in your driveway is worth a few days of pride and indulgence, and after the new wears off, the same value that your old car provided – a ride from here to there.

And worse than that, the accumulation of things becomes a burden in maintaining those things.  A big house full  of nice things takes a lot of work to keep up – time and resources that could be spent enjoying life instead of serving your possessions.  And if you decide to hire out the maintenance of your things, then you have to spend more time at work to earn money to do this – more time away from living life.

I can think of lots of things I bought that I would hesitate to buy again:

  • A big house.  I really thought we needed this much room, but as it turns out, we gravitate toward the same small spaces and a lot of rooms are just repositories and museums for nice things.
  • An expensive engagement ring.  This is a hard choice, because a lot of a girl’s ego is tied up in this little purchase.  But when you think of it, you spend several thousand dollars on a rock – and probably one that abused a generation of poor people to produce.
  • Flashy clothes, cars and other status symbols.  As soon as a peer gets one, or the first time it stains or dents, it’s just another piece of junk.
  • Toys, guitars, electronics and other distractions.  I really don’t know that they were worth what was put into them.  I don’t regret my passion and involvement with guitars, but I wish that several impulse purchases that turned out to be junk had never happened.

Why is America like this?  Because the people who sell you stuff are really good at it.  They research you, categorize you and send you messages designed to get you to pull out your wallet across every available medium.  We consume radio/tv/internet stuffed full of advertising. We get our food in carefully planned packaging designed to enhance its attractiveness.  Where once my GI Joes were loosely stuffed in a cardboard box, your toys today are bound in exciting positions with hundreds of attachments – even the dolls’ hair is sewn in place lest one shake of the box make it look less attractive.  We pay a premium for designer logos – they actually have us brainwashed to the point where we pay the manufacturer more for the privilege of  promoting their products for us.

It’s not easy to defeat this kind of onslaught.  But one thing I do these days when faced with a purchase is ask myself “Is this going to make my life better?”  Am I buying something out of need, or desire?  Will it make my life happier, or is it just one more thing to add to the collection.  And because I’m a bargain hunter, I remind myself that an object I won’t use is not a bargain, even if I got it at a significant discount.

It’s working so far.  And I hope it works better for you in the end.

“Live every day as if it were your last, because one of these days, it will be.” – Jeremy Schwartz

I hope that title grabbed your eye.  Take a second to think about it.

No matter how strong, how healthy, how well prepared you may be, you’re eventually going to die someday.  And unfortunately, no one knows the time they will go.  People who are the picture of vitality and health wake up one day and are involved in a mortal accident or an act of violence. People with no history of poor health come back from a routine doctor’s visit with the news that they have an incurable disease.

My first death in the family was my maternal grandmother.  She was in the process of recovering from a stroke at our house and one morning, she was just gone.  She wasn’t in the best health, but there wasn’t any deathbead ritual – she simply died sitting at the breakfast table while my mom had a conversation with her.  I was only 10, so it wasn’t the biggest impact on me.

My paternal grandmother was next.  Again, she had been sickly, but it wasn’t at all expected.  My paternal grandfather was next, and he passed away during the night.  He’d never been to the hospital a day in his life and at 94 was still working hard outdoors every day.  I was beginning to get the picture that death just wasn’t that predictable.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was just out of college.  She’d never smoked or had a family history of it.  Luckily for us, she pulled through surgery and radiation treatments like a trooper, but there were still a lot of anxious months and years involved before she was pronounced cancer-free definitively.

My father died in a routine operation to clear a blood vessel in his neck.  He’d never been in the hospital in all his years and had just breezed through a preliminary operation of exactly the same kind a couple of months before.  He went through surgery fine, then mysteriously died in the recovery room.

In 2005, I contracted West Nile disease and suffered meningitis,  encephalitis and about a weeklong coma.  When I woke, they were prepping us to expect brain damage and loss of function.  Thankfully I pulled through this and proved them all wrong with a full recovery, but it was a very sobering time.

At this point, your mother is halfway through chemotherapy to fight breast cancer.  We never expected this either and likely would not have found it if a bout with bronchitis had not caused her to find the lump early.  We were very lucky.

The point is, you never really know how much time you have left.  The older you get and the more close brushes with death you have, death becomes less of an intellectual exercise and more of an expectation.

No one wants to die.  Even people that think they’re headed to Heaven next don’t want to die to get there.  But it’s the destination we all share.  You won’t escape it.

Sorry to be so dramatic and melancholy, but it’s all quite true.

The lesson to learn is that your time is limited, so don’t waste it.  Don’t waste it living the life someone else wants you to live. Don’t let the noise of public opinion drown out your inner voice.  Have the courage to follow your heart and your dreams.

And look in the mirror every day and ask yourself that if today is the last day you have, would you still do what you planned to do today?  Are the goals you are pursuing worthy of the last day of your life?   In the grand scheme of your life, will today matter?   It might be the last day you have to matter.

Everything else is secondary.

One of the most hated descriptions you can apply to another is “hypocrite”.  The simplest definition for this characteristic is probably someone who says one thing and does another.  Nobody likes a hypocrite.  Nobody respects a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is alive and well in every generation.  It’s in the rock star who trumpets a message of urgency to save the starving in some foreign country, yet dedicates little of his own money to the cause.  It’s practically every politician, comparing their pre and post election message.  The person who denounces materialism, which admitting that they still cling to their own particular indulgences.

Aside from the undesirable peer status, hypocrisy is just a draining experience.  It’s a constant set of doubletalk sent to your brain, reinforcing opposite ideals that simply leave you without a real ability to define yourself or your  core beliefs.  And if you can get to a point where you no longer sense the conflict, you’ve just developed something of a sociopathic relationship with yourself that can never be relied upon to guide you, chasten you or bolster you.

Unfortunately, it’s an easy trap to fall into:

  • You publicly acknowledge the need to help others, but can’t seem to let go of your own time or money
  • Your heart calls you to spend your life in work that helps people, but you can’t let go of a meaningless corporate career because it pays so well
  • Your relationship is stagnant and unfulfilling, but peer pressure, an aversion to conflict or need to cling to routine keep you from breaking it off
  • You cling to the politics/social structure/religion of your childhood, although your ideology doesn’t really line up with it anymore

If you’re in that situation, you know there’s a little voice inside you that comes up in times of reflection and tells you that you need to make a change.  Be assured, the older you get, the voice only gets louder.  It’s your conscience building on a lifetime of experiences that tell you to pursue what’s in your heart.

Make your best efforts always to pursue only what truly matters to you – the things that are undeniably a part of you.  To make the values in your heart the values that guide your life.
Stay authentic to yourself.

It’s very likely that at one time or another, you’ll be called to make a speech before an audience.  Daunting as it may seem, the ability to give a good speech is within anyone’s grasp, given that they’re willing to put in the effort necessary.  It just takes some confidence, a strong grip on the fundamentals and something that people want to hear!

Preparation

  •  When given a choice, pick a good topic.  The best way to give a memorable speech is to say something that people are interested in hearing.   Current events and concerns make the message real and applicable, and in so doing, demand attention.  Talk about what’s on the front page, what’s in the media and take advantage of the zeitgeist.
  • If you’re assigned a topic that you don’t feel is interesting to your audience, look for common themes that touch everyone – basic interests like love, aspirations, security, friendship.  When crafting your speech, build it around themes that hold people’s interest to connect them to the topic.  So, when tasked to give a speech about the GNP of Haiti, turn it into a story about a typical family’s struggle for survival instead of a stack of charts.
  • Tell a story.  People get interested in stories, and often you can guide them through the points you want to make in order to reveal the rest of the story.  Avoid the classic “begin the story, interject the speech, finish the story” formula – it’s so well used that people learn to tune the middle out.  Thread your story all the way through your speech.  If it’s a report, find the story behind the facts.  If it’s a how-to, make it a story about someone learning how-to.
  • Craft your speech to draw attention.  Don’t just give them a bulleted list.  People have been trained by movies and TV to gravitate through some common storylines and approaches:
    • The “hero’s journey” – a classic coming of age story
    • David vs Goliath – when the underdog wins
    • Challenging assumptions – putting a twist in the plot to deliver an unexpected conclusion
    • Personalities – presenting the development of a character

    Draw some inspiration from a favorite movie or show and see how your speech could progress along those lines.

  • Keep it simple.  If you can’t condense the premise into a sentence, it’s not simple enough.
  • Get the words down pat.  Know your speech.  Study it so well you don’t need your notes – then you won’t need them nearly as much when nervousness kicks in.
  • Practice it aloud.  Get the words familiar to your lips so you don’t stumble.  Time yourself and know about how fast you have to talk in order to deliver it in the proper timeframe.
  • Practice it standing.  If you know you’ll have a podium, practice with a similar substitute.  This solidifies your confidence.  If you’ve already worked all the quirks of your body – how you will stand, gesture, when you will pause, look at notes, etc. you will feel much more familiar with the room at go time.
  • Eliminate “uuhs”, “wells” and similar pause expressions.  They’re terribly distracting.
  • Make notes.  Don’t try to read your whole speech.  Put together a basic outline to remind you of your direction and use it.
  • If your speech requires a question & answer period, go ahead and line up some expected questions and answers.  Also, think of some sources that you can pass along in case of an unexpected question.  For example: “That’s a very good question and a good answer would be a little more in-depth than we have time for here today.  I’d suggest reading…”.

Delivery

  • Speak confidently.  You know your subject, now deliver it.  Don’t hesitate.  If people feel like you doubt yourself, they won’t believe in you.
  • Speak naturally.  Don’t try to adopt an orator’s voice or exaggerated gestures.  People recognize phony behavior – just speak as you would in any situation.
  • Use your notes.  Don’t try to pretend they aren’t there.  Mark your current place whenever it’s convenient with something so that if you get lost, you have a reference point.
  • Show enthusiasm.  Your audience will never have greater enthusiasm than you…
  • Find faces in the audience for feedback.  Find someone who is attentive, then use their expressions to gauge your effectiveness.  If they show confusion, take a bit of time to better explain the point.  Don’t get lost chasing loose ends, but if you can offer a quick example or a descriptive sentence, it’s worth it to get your message across.
  • If you’re asked a question you don’t know, admit it and provide an opportunity to return the answer to them later.

Feedback

  • Record the speech if possible.  Learn from your mistakes for the next opportunity
  • Speak with the audience if possible.  Find out how much they understood and what impact it had.

The best teacher is experience, so my best advice is to take advantage of every opportunity to speak and refine your skills.

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