Arm’s Reach and Your Life’s Direction

Arm's Reach and Your Life's Direction

If somebody puts Mint Creme Oreos on our kitchen counter, I will eat them. Why? Because they’re there. I will also put on weight and my blood sugar will get jacked out of proportion. Rarely will I win the battle to say “no.” After all, they’re small, taste so good, and they’re there.

Jonathan Cawte calls this the Law of Food Proximity. Briefly, “If you can see it, smell it, or reach it, you will eat it.”

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear—chapter 6 “Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More”—tells the story of Anne Thorndike, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who wanted to change the eating habits of staff and visitors to the hospital. She and her colleagues did this by designing a six-month experiment in “choice architecture” in the hospital cafeteria. By simply adding bottled water to the refrigerators next to the cashiers, which had previously contained only soft drinks, and positioning additional bottles of water in spots all over the cafeteria, they saw a soda sales decline of 11.4 percent and an increase in bottled water sales of 25.8 percent. This is the power of proximity. More water + less soda = healthier staff and guests.

We tend to make choices based on physics—location—rather than ideals. It’s easier. Advertisers know this and design grocery store layouts strategically to leverage this basic human tendency. Why do you think the Kit-Kat bars are staring at you while you wait in the checkout line?

What and who you have close at hand will largely determine the life you live. Jim Rohn has said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The choices in food, friends, function, and fun at your arm’s length are worth knowing and designing intentionally.

Here are some practical suggestions to design your environment for the outcomes you want:

  • Keep healthy foods in reach and in sight. Put junk food, if you have it, in a place where you must stand on tiptoes or a chair to reach it. Your brain will often translate that little bit of effort into, “Too much work. Just eat a piece of fruit.”
  • Keep exercise equipment out and close at hand. I telecommute and keep dumbbells in my home office two feet from my desk. They’re there, so I lift every day.
  • Put an app on your smartphone to limit time on social media. Constant nibbles on Facebook and Instagram are about as healthy as constant nibbles on the Oreos.
  • If you’re a musician, keep your instrument out of the case where you can grab it quickly. Even a little practice, done daily, adds up. I always keep a guitar out and on a stand.
  • Choose your social environments, and therefore your friends, wisely. A lot of our friends have become so simply because of proximity. Same workplace, same watering holes, same church and civic groups.

Suggested Resources:

Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)

The Magic of Thinking Big (David J. Schwartz)

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Stops. And Starts.

just start 2

You’re forty years old. Middle age is upon you. When you smile, crow’s feet appear. And you’ve just lost your job. Fired.

May 1995. That’s where forty-year old Jim Grant found himself. An Englishman and a big man, 6’ 5”, Jim had made a career in British television production only to see that career dismantled strategically by people and forces over which he had no control. There was little he could do about it and he was angry. And broke.

Jim needed to do something to make a living and didn’t have time or money to waste. He went to the store and bought pencils and a ream of notebook paper. Pencils, because they’re cheaper than pens. He didn’t have a computer. He just sat down at his kitchen table and began to write:

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock.

Fans of the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child, Jim Grant’s pen name, will recognize these words as the opening lines of Killing Floor, the first of the Jack Reacher novels. Lee Child has published twenty-three Reacher novels, all bestsellers, with a twenty-fourth in production to be published this year.

What are the takeaways for you and me in this short sketch? Here’s a couple:

  • He started writing at middle age, not as a kid. He did this because he needed to make a living and had been in entertainment most of his life. A novel is entertainment. Child argues that beginning to write at middle age is a great thing because you have experience with life. This gives credibility to your stories. See the video below.
  • He channeled his anger and frustration creatively. He didn’t baptize his misfortunes in pint after pint.
  • He began the career of a New York Times bestselling author in the least sexy way possible: At his kitchen table with pencils and loose-leaf notebook paper to save money. No Macbook Pro. No fancy creative space. Just a chair, table, pencil and a piece of paper. It doesn’t take much. Just put your butt in the chair and begin.

That’s what he did. You can do the same.

So start.

Suggested Resources:

Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future (Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer with Paul B. Brown)

Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me (Andy Martin)

Image Credit: Christian Fahey

 

Drive and Initiative

When you were growing up, did you hear this question (I bet you did)?  “Why do you have to wait for me to tell you to clean up your room?”  One or both parents would make this nagging request.  Yeah, I thought it would bring back memories.

What were our parents trying to do?  Were they just bored and looking for something to gripe about, harping on us, making our lives unpleasant?  No.

What they were trying to mold in us was this:  Initiative.  Self-discipline.  Drive.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and realize that the difference between excellence and mediocrity boils down to whether one is a self-starter or has to be told, constantly, what is the next step in any given enterprise or series of tasks.

Understand this:  Your boss, like your parents, can spot initiative.  And initiative taken, even if the performance is not up to speed, gets favorable attention from those who are in positions to help us.  The opposite is true as well.  Our betters can spot laziness and a “just enough to get by” attitude a mile away.

I studied French for six years in high school and college.  One phenomenon I’ve heard about a few times comes from people who’ve either visited France or Quebec.  The French are notoriously jealous of their native tongue.  And they should be for it is a beautiful language.  Those who take the initiative to try and communicate in French with native French speakers, even if their own skills are marginal, often have the reward of the French trying to help them, honored that someone took time and effort to try.  Such initiative has an ingratiating quality about it.

Here’s the challenge:  Find something in your job, your vocation, your home, wherever, that you can do without being asked.  And then make a habit of this.  “It’s not my job” must not be within a million miles of your credo.  You are meant for far more than that.  And the habit for doing more than is expected will be rewarded.

Remember, people are watching.  Up the ante.

 

Suggested Resources:

A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results (Paul Gustavson & Stewart Liff)

The Go-Getter: A Story That Tells You How To Be One (Peter B. Kyne)

 

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Think It Through!

IBM founder Thomas Watson became famous, in part, because of a slogan he’d picked up as a young sales manager for National Cash Register Company.  He made it the defining motif for Big Blue from the 1920’s to the present.

Think.

“Think” signs were plastered all over IBM so that every employee, from the janitor to the senior vice president, would capture the vision that strategic thinking would help the company to grow and flourish.  He made a forceful case that the phrase “I didn’t think” was one of the main reasons why companies lost millions of dollars.  Many IBM employees—engineers and others—would carve out big chunks of time every day simply to think.

One of the reasons why things tend to stress us out us is the bad habit of not thinking a thing through and solving the problem by thoroughly understanding it.  We tend to be impatient and want everything now, especially solutions.  This applies to any area of life, not just mechanical headaches like a malfunctioning smartphone.

In his book The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, M. Scott Peck points out that simplistic thinking, which he labels simplism, is the plague of our times.  And the reason for not thinking challenges through is that real thought is hard work!

I know a dad who regularly counseled his adult sons when first entering the real world of work to “think it through” when considering possible courses of action.  My wife likes to call this process “playing the tape to the end.”

Here are some tips to improve your own strategic, solution-based thinking:

  • Create an undistracted atmosphere.  Turn off your smartphone for a while and give yourself to the task at hand.
  • Think with pencil and paper in hand.  Or pen and Moleskine. Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for his Journals, filled with math, drawings, aphorisms and sundry jottings.  Writing things out clarifies your own muddy thinking.
  • Look at your challenge from multiple angles.  Da Vinci again.  He used to sketch things from three different angles, including upside-down, so that he would not miss details and had a better picture of the whole.  Thomas Aquinas, in his famous Summa Theologica, used to state a thesis. Then he’d come up with every possible argument against his thesis.   Then he’d finish with even more powerful arguments in favor of his position.
  • Try seeing your riddle through the eyes of a child.  Albert Einstein was famous for this.  His child-like approach to physics gave us his theories of special and general relativity.  A true “outside-the-box” thinker.

Remember that thinking is hard work, but well worth the effort.  You will be surprised how many more solutions will emerge as you give patience and focus to thinking things through.

 

Suggested Resources:

Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser (Guy P. Harrison)

Leonardo’s Notebooks: Writing and Art of the Great Master (Leonardo da Vinci & H. Anna Suh)

 

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Switchfoot and Hope

“Hope deserves an anthem and that’s why we sing.”

(Jon Foreman)

Kath and I attended a superb concert last night.  Switchfoot came to our town and played Meadowbrook Theatre, a venue at my alma mater, Oakland University, in suburban Detroit.

She was blown away.

So was I.

The band was superb.  Tight.  Didn’t miss a note.  Engaged from the opening “Hello Hurricane” to the final encore “Dare You to Move.”

I’m not a kid anymore.  That was four decades ago.  But I was a kid last night.

I first heard of Switchfoot, an alternative band from San Diego, about fourteen years ago.  Their album “The Beautiful Letdown” put them on the map in a big way.  Indeed, their performances of “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move” from that breakout album at the concert’s end capped the night brilliantly.

Today, I listened to interviews with the band’s co-founder, front man Jon Foreman.  When asked what Switchfoot’s music is all about, Jon answered, “Hope deserves an anthem and that’s why we sing.”

Odd, I came into their music in a big way after I passed the half-century mark.  I’m fifty-three and rock and roll for me means Led Zeppelin.  And more Led Zeppelin.  (Factoid: Jon Foreman was a part of a Led Zeppelin tribute band in his teens.  Factoid no. 2: During the middle section of “Bull In a China Shop” last night, lead guitarist Drew Shirley launched into the solo from “Whole Lotta Love.”  It was spectacular.)

As I’ve gotten to know Switchfoot’s music, I’ve become very uncomfortable.  Hope is a theme.  So are themes like “live life fully, unafraid and without regrets” and “is this who you want to be?”

Ouch.  A little too near the heart and conscience

Check them out.  They’re raw and real, all flawed humanoids trying to figure life out.  It’s all spelled out in the music.

 

Recommended Resources:

“Where the Light Shines Through” (Switchfoot)

“Fading West” (Switchfoot)

“The Beautiful Letdown” (Switchfoot)

“Fading West” – Film (Switchfoot)

 

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(Written for homeless kids in San Diego)

Failure ≠ Final

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

(Thomas Edison)

 

Suggested Resources:

Edison: A Biography (Matthew Josephson)

Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (John C. Maxwell)

Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure (Andreas Kluth)

 

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Minimize Future Regrets–Today!

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, is the third richest man in the world.  His net worth in 2016 was something like 85.1 billion US dollars.

Let’s go back in time.  The internet was about seven years old.  Jeff was a member of a quantitative hedge fund, the D.E. Shaw Group in New York.  He had a very good job.  He also had an idea.  His idea was to begin selling books on the internet.

He and his boss, D.E. Shaw, went for a two hour walk around Central Park.  Jeff was thinking seriously about leaving the Shaw Group and striking out on his own.  He presented the idea to his employer.  Mr. Shaw said, “I think it’s a great idea.  But not for someone who already has a good job.”  He asked Jeff to think about it for forty-eight hours before making his decision.

Jeff formulated his pending decision within a nerdy concept called a “Regret Minimization Framework.”  Summed up, it went like this:  Project yourself ahead into the future when you’re eighty years old.  Looking back, you ask the question “If I do X and I fail at X, will I regret having tried and failed?”  Answer: “No.”

Next question.  “If I don’t try X (and thus never know what could happen), will I have regrets?”  Answer: “Yes.”

Jeff moved to Seattle and started Amazon.

We know now just how successful his choice was.  But he could not have known what 2017 would look like way back in the early 2000’s.  Amazon is ubiquitous.  We all shop there.

Regret Minimization Framework.  A big term.  Summed up, what kinds of decisions can you or I make now that won’t leave us tossing and turning at night in the twilight years wondering what might have been?

For reflection:

  • What choices have you already made that have left you with definite regrets? What would you have done differently?
  • Do you have an idea, knowing ideas carry risk, that you would like to develop and see through? If you choose not to follow through on this idea, will you regret the missed opportunities and adventures which could have been yours as your life nears its end?
  • Are you aware, as JK Rowling said, that allowing fear to keep you from stepping out on your dream is ultimately to fail by default?

Suggested Resources:

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Brad Stone)

Think like Jeff Bezos: Making of an e-commerce business mammoth from yesterday for tomorrow : 23 life changing lessons from Jeff Bezos on Life,People,Business, Technology and Leadership (Jamie Morris)

 

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