Book Reviews

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin puts us in the sidecar for her wonderful yearlong experiment called the Happiness Project.  It took a while to write this review because each time I went back to look at my notes I got sucked back into a particular passage or story.  Like any good writer she is brutally honest about herself and where she succeeded and just as importantly where she failed.  While she was clearly the centerpiece of the experiment, she did not curate any of the unpleasant parts.  If anything, she is a little too harsh on herself.  That’s what makes it so approachable.  This is the opposite of a Facebook post.  The book overflows with authenticity.

The underlying theme feels like an academic study with a mindset for personal growth.  There is no painful origin story that launched this hero’s journey.  She freely admits that she is not doing this to overcome an addiction or get over the loss of a loved one or any other brutal obstacle.   Instead, she wonders, what can I do to become happier?  Is it even possible for us to change our happiness level or are we stuck with it?  In her words, “the ‘set-point’ theory holds that a person’s basic level of happiness doesn’t fluctuate much, except briefly.  My conclusion: yes, it is possible.”  Finding out how she came to that conclusion is well worth the journey.

She breaks the book down into twelve chapters, one for each month of the project.  Each month she tackles one primary issue like Boost Energy / Vitality for January then breaks this down into three to five smaller steps.  January was – go to sleep earlier, exercise better, [toss, restore, organize], and act more energetic.   Throughout the chapter she then shares her struggles and successes with each.  This is a great way, especially for us Type As, to approach any task.  Define the problem, then break it into small enough tasks that can actually be accomplished.  Solve.  She’s hitting all of the marks on setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-boxed.  Throughout this journey, she also discovers four Splendid Truths that we will explore as we go.

We’ll take this in quarters.  In the first quarter she focuses on vitality, marriage and work with the goals of boost energy, remember love and aim higher.  There was tons to learn from these chapters but I’ll focus on the ones that stood out to me.  The first was the G. K. Chesterton quote: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”  She talks about this several times throughout the book but it rings so true.  Everyone knows the party mosquito that sucks the life out of every gathering.  They focus on nothing but the negative, which can actually come across as smart, but they drag everyone down.  These people typically think of themselves as ironic or counter culture but it’s so much easier to poo-poo than it is to embrace.  It also grabs the victim mindset attention that these folks thrive on.  It is far harder to be positive and to bring the group up.  Unfortunately, it also means those that bring joy often get taken for granted because nobody is worried about them.  They’re the happy ones after all, right?  Not necessarily, it takes a lot more effort to buoy than it does to sink.

That brings us to the next point, “you have to do that kind of work for yourself.  If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them acknowledge it and to be grateful and to give you credit.  If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.”  Making people happy and personal growth brings its own joy, don’t expect rewards.  This falls into another learning she was forced to acknowledge, “I couldn’t change anyone else.”  You can take people along for the journey, you can show them way but you can’t force anyone to change.  That has to come from within.

One quote that I absolutely loved is: “In fact, for both men and women – and this finding struck me as highly significant – the most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women.  Time spent with men doesn’t make a difference.”  Yes, ladies, men really are a lot shallower when it comes to things like vulnerability and feelings.  Not just your man.  This doesn’t really tie into the splendid truth but it was too good not to mention.

When she takes us through work and aiming higher one of her focuses is on challenging yourself.  “One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition.  You become larger.  Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish.  Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened.”  On top of that, when you’re feeling happier it is much easier to risk failure.  Failure can be fun provided that you look at with a growth mindset.  If you learn, you never fail.  Finally, she also broaches the arrival fallacy.  “The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because, though you may anticipate great happiness in arrival, arriving rarely makes you as happy as you anticipate.”  Embrace the journey.

This led to her “First Splendid Truth: to be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”  Very Descartes.  This is the work required though – it’s easy to be heavy: hard to be light.

In the second quarter she covers parenthood, leisure and friendship with the goals of lighten up, be serious about play, and make time for friends.  The biggest lesson I grabbed from her parenthood section was “we should acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings.”  Don’t deny what your kids are feeling or there will never be real communication.  “Crazily enough, I discovered, just repeating what my child was saying, to show that I appreciated her point of view, was often enough to bring peace.”  I can’t tell you how much this has improved my relationship with my daughters.  Telling them what they feel is sooo much easier but so toxic, “but you love carrots, just eat it” – has ended arguments in my household exactly never.

When she dives into leisure the main point I took from her was to be yourself.  She had a great quote that said something along the lines of, “we can choose what we do but we can’t choose what we like to do.”  At some point we all wish to be more sophisticated and more educated so we may trick ourselves into trying to like stuff that may not jive with who we are.  And that’s ok, because it allows us to grow.  At the same time, if you’re looking for a real break, real leisure time, acknowledge who you are.  “What did you like to do when you were a child?  What you enjoyed as a ten-year-old is probably something you’d enjoy now.”  For me, it’s fantasy novels and video games.  My tastes have evolved and my responsibilities don’t allow me to indulge often but when I do, it is super relaxing.  As a younger man, I might have been ashamed of those leisure activities but honestly are they any more ridiculous than watching grown men in matching clothes throw or kick a ball around?

When she dives into friendship she discovers her “Second Splendid Truth:  One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.  One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”  Friendship is critical as are interpersonal skills, Diener and Seligman point this out, “of 24 character strengths, those that best predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal ones.”  Who do you like to hang around, folks that bring you up or those that pull you down?

In the next quarter Rubin tackles money, eternity and books with the goals of buy some happiness, contemplate the heavens and pursue a passion.  Her findings on money were consistent with Shawn Achor’s in the Happiness Advantage – you can buy happiness but generally when you spend on experiences, on others and on services that will make your life easier, NOT on things.  She also ties money back to keeping score with a loved one.  Keeping score is a horrible way to go through life.  She comes to the conclusion that you spend out your time because it just makes you feel better.  “Spend out.  Don’t think about the return.  ‘It is by spending oneself,’ the actress Sarah Bernhardt remarked, ‘that one becomes rich.’  What’s more, one intriguing study showed that Sarah Bernhardt’s pronouncement is literally true: people who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity.”

When contemplating eternity and thereby some elements of mortality, our author comes to her “Third Splendid Truth: The days are long, but the years are short.”  She somewhat morbidly approached the topic by reading through a ton of catastrophic memoirs.  The theme of these memoirs is often, “the admonition to live fully and thankfully in the present.  So often, it’s only after some calamity strikes that we appreciate what we had.  ‘There are times in the lives of most of us,’ observed William Edward Hartpole Lecky, ‘when we should have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed.”  When enough people come back to gratitude and mindfulness as key components of happiness, you have to start taking these things seriously.

I didn’t pull a ton out of the books section as this was more her exploring a heartfelt personal hobby.  I share a lot of that same passion so I feel I’ve already learned most of those lessons.  The biggest takeaway was her “Fourth Splendid Truth: You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.”  She added a corollary: “You’re happy if you think you’re happy.”  This is a little meta but that makes it even more powerful.  You have to want happiness, and you do have to strive for it but when you do, you realize that happiness is actually a choice.  That is incredibly liberating.

In her last quarter she takes on mindfulness, attitude and happiness in summary form with the goals of pay attention, keep a contented heart and boot camp perfect.  There wasn’t a ton of revelations in this quarter as she basically just found more supporting evidence of her four splendid truths.  However, it was a good wrap up for the full experience.

She closes the book with some great cue card reminders of how best to utilized her discovered wisdom.  I use them often.  I am not ashamed to say that I will read this book again.  It was that good.  Reading it inspires you to be a better person.


Want personal growth? Drop your sense of entitlement

No one owes you anything.  Not your parents.  Not your government.  Not your job.  Not your spouse.  Not your kids.  This is one of the hardest lessons to learn in life.  Understanding this is one of the biggest steps you can take on the path to maturity and long term happiness.  When you walk around thinking that the world owes you something you have accepted the victim mindset.  You have decided that instead of creating, you will spend your time collecting.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  After all, everybody loves hanging out with the tax collector.

As small children, we need the protection and sustenance that our parents provide to survive.  As a small child, that care and sustenance becomes our universe and we locate ourselves smack dab in the middle of it.  At some point, around age nine or ten, we discover that we are NOT the center of the universe.  Other people populate this world with us.  Strangely enough, those people have needs and wants that aren’t necessarily the same needs and wants that we have.  Many times, their needs are different or even OPPOSITE to what we want.  Nauseating, I know.  My youngest daughter is in third grade right now and understanding this is her biggest challenge.  Why don’t all the kids do what I want to do?  How dare they have their own opinions and desires?

Once we start to figure this out, mother nature backhands us with the awkwardness of adolescence.  Then we spend the next several years trying to communicate with all these other humans through a haze of hormones.  This puts us in a super clear mindset where we make decisions that only a mescaline fueled Hunter S. Thompson would approve of.  We call this rite of passage high school.

On the other side of that gauntlet lies an invitation to autonomy.  Most of us accept it.  Too many of us accept it with strings attached.  The majority of us, in first world countries anyway, now believe that we are entitled to a college education.  Those of us who feel entitled typically don’t get a lot from it.  We approach it like a four year camp with a participation certificate attached.

jaded-rich-kids.jpgThroughout this experience, we have all met the jaded rich kid.  They typically spend Christmas break in Bali and they believe they have seen it all.  They have this malaise that is rooted in this fear that there are no more great experiences for them to have.  Everything has been provided for them.  Every problem resolved.  Every whim catered.  Every pleasure seen to.  I’ve known too many of these folks.  Most of them are incredibly unhappy.  Not all, but most.  How is this possible?

The primary reason for that unhappiness is that they have stopped growing.  They have stopped trying.  When you feel like the world exists to serve you, what reason do you have to improve?  These people end up as stunted man children that poison the air around them.  They never had to earn it.  They never had to enter another person’s world.  They never learned empathy.  They believe people owe them respect.  These are the people that treat wait staff like crap.  That same staff will smile to their face then go spit in their soup back in the kitchen.  Unearned respect can’t feel good.  A lot of times it’s not even their fault and honestly all I can feel for them is pity.

Sadly, this problem is not limited to the rich.  Too many of us find a level of comfort within our personal tribe.  We then have the mistaken impression that this comfort should be untouchable.  This group could be your neighborhood, this could be your political tribe, this could be your clique from high school or college, this could be your work crowd, this could be anywhere that you have some sense of status.  When change is introduced into that group especially if it impacts your identity OR, even worse, your status within that identity, we panic.  We point at that change and say, “We were here first!  This is our club!  Damn you women!  Damn you immigrants!  Damn you millennials!  The world owes us  advantages for getting here first!”

What a load of crap.  The world owes you nothing.  If you feel like the world is passing you by, that’s your fault, and nobody else’s.  The only way to avoid it is to drop your sense of entitlement and engage.  Put the time in.  Understand the change.  Understand the other point of view.  Allow your mind to be changed.

What happens when we allow our minds to be changed?  We learn.  We grow.  We improve.  We become better people.

Book Reviews

Designing your Life

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans designed a pretty amazing book with Designing your Life.  They are both professors at Stanford but each of them had pretty amazing careers pre-Academia.  The way they write and the way they use their own goals comes across as two guys who have figured out quite a few things about life.  At least their own lives.  Not only does their communication style come across as very comfortable, both authors have that tone of calm competence that you always get from people who have mastered their craft.  The book comes from concepts that were pioneered and tested in the classroom and the boardroom.  The class they offered had the same title and it quickly became one of the most popular classes at the school.

You can see why this would be so popular.  So many kids get their first taste of freedom when they head off to college/university.  With this freedom comes some new accountabilities that can easily pile up to a massive oh shit question.  What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Up until this point, most kids have a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to do next.  There is a fairly unambiguous scorecard that comes in the form of grades or scoreboards or even social pecking order.  Once you get into college, your previous standing in all these things becomes irrelevant.  Not only do you have to recreate who you are, you typically have to do it by yourself.  Sure, you have advisors throughout the process, but the road ahead is no longer obvious and your parents aren’t there for the day to day stuff.  Burnett and Evans help kids figure this incredibly difficult transition out.  Now that all this knowledge is in a book, they can help you figure it out too.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just for kids.  No matter how old you are, if you are contemplating any type of change in career, relationship, health, etc. the knowledge in these pages will help.  We should all actively work to design our lives no matter where we start in the process because the alternative is to let the world do it for you.  That’s how the victim mindset begins.

Our authors start with sharing some facts.  First, only 27% of college grads end up working in something related to their majors.  Second, “two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs.  And 15% actually hate their work.”  With just those two statements it becomes obvious we are not doing a good job of designing our lives.

They then take us through their definition of design.  Design requires radical collaboration, talk with many people from many disciplines to design something amazing.  Designers are also great tinkerers.  “Designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward.”  To design your life effectively, you’re going to need “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.”  They also take on the passion mindset a bit and that you can’t just fall into it, “people actually need to take time to develop a passion.  And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before.  To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Step 1: Start where you are

They outline an amazing roadmap of how to start this design.  Step 1:  Start where you are.  This is figuring out how to place the ‘you are here’ pin.  They ask you to break down where you stand in four critical pillars of life: health, work, play and love.  They walk you through creating a dashboard of how you stack up in each of these pillars.

Step 2: Building a compass

In this stage, they ask you to define true north.  They ask you to build a Lifeview by asking some fundamental questions: “What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world?  What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?  How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?”  None of these questions have easy answers and each of them deserves serious introspection.  It’s worth it.  They ask you to do the same for your Workview which is a similar exercise but focuses on your craft.  The goal of both of these exercises is coherence.  You want to be able to articulate an internal compass to guide you through the many shades of gray that life tosses your way.

Step 3: Wayfinding

In this stage, the goal is to understand what makes work fun.  One of my favorite quotes from the book came from this chapter: “Flow is play for grown-ups.”  Wayfinding takes you through a set of exercises to understand what flow means for you.  In their words, “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.”  They provide you with a good time journal that asks you to track what you’re doing at work for a couple of weeks.  When you scribe the task, they ask your engagement level while the activity was happening.  They then ask you to record your energy level for the activity when it was complete.  This starts identifying those tasks that bring you to flow already or point the direction for the work that can take you there.  If this does not become obvious after a couple of weeks, you can dive deeper using the AEIOU method.  You can look at each task/experience then ask: what Activities were actually involved?  What was the Environment like?  What was the Interaction like – people or machines, new or old?  What Objects were you interacting with?  What other Users were involved?

Step 4: Getting Unstuck

This section was all about brainstorming where they walk you through effective ways to build out a mind map which is essentially a post-it note guided brainstorming session.

Steps 5 & 6: Designing your life and Prototyping

They then ask you to take some of your results from the brainstorming exercises and to build out three five year plans.  These are three completely different things that you could see yourself doing over the next five years.  “We call these Odyssey Plans.”  Once you build these plans, it’s time to start doing some prototyping.  A lot of prototyping involves just getting out there and talking to people that have done something similar to what you’re trying to do.  Figure out why these folks love or hate what they’re doing.  Get their story and try to superimpose some of it on yourself.  Is this something you could really see yourself doing?

These first steps are the ones that resonated for me.  Like a lot of these personal development books, it started very strong but faded a little as it went on.  The authors continue with really good advice on designing and landing a dream job, but most of this was not as fresh or new as the earlier parts of the book.

They close with some great thoughts on how designing your life will actually create an immunity to failure.  If you are constantly designing your life, if you are constantly self-improving, any failure you experience is just part of the process.  That’s what life is after all, a constant trial and error experiment.  The big difference is that if you choose to design your life, you’ve decided to own that experiment.  You’ve decided to call the shots and play an active role in it rather than passively let your external stimuli control it for you.

The choice seems obvious to me.


Why is generosity awkward?

Awkwardness of Giving

Valentine’s day is tomorrow.  We all know that guy that swears he will not be celebrating because it is a corporate holiday that was invented to sell more greeting cards.  That’s not actually true.  It was first a pagan fertility holiday called Lupercalia that was annexed by the church in much the same way that we have on Easter Bunny to celebrate the rebirth of Jesus.  You gotta give it up for those popes, they knew how to market an idea.  What is true is that there are a ton of holidays out there that were created by Hallmark like boss’s day, secretary’s day, grandparents day, etc.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Yes, it is self-serving for Hallmark but it does give us an excuse to be generous.

Awkward-face.jpgSomewhere along the way, being generous became awkward.  I’m not talking about giving to a charity or giving to the poor, these options carry none of the awkwardness.  I’m talking about giving a gift to a friend or picking up lunch when going out with a colleague.  The social contract has changed so much that offering to do these things has become almost taboo.  It’s still perfectly acceptable for a boss to take an employee out and buy them lunch (especially if they are expensing it) but there is no way that’s ok the other way around.  A corporate lunch involves the market contract, so much so, that many times the employee doesn’t even feel compelled to say thank you.  Yet buying coffee for a friend comes laden with all these weird feelings.  What happened?

We’ll unpack this in a second but first I’d like to share a personal anecdote that got me thinking about this.  I have been going through a lot of the Headspace meditation packs for the second time and I’ve found myself back on the generosity pack.  One of the meditations asks you to give a gift to somebody throughout the course of the day to heighten your awareness about generosity.  It’s not supposed to be something big and the receiver of the gift shouldn’t know that the gift is part of an exercise.

This got me to thinking back to the first time I had done this.  I ended up buying one of my colleagues a cup of coffee.  She graciously accepted and I felt pretty good about myself.  Several days later I found that she kept trying to return the favor.  It clearly bothered her and she felt somehow that I put her in my debt.  Obviously not my intent.  I did let her buy me that return cup and she felt good about it partly from the generosity but more I think because by doing so, the social checkbook had been balanced.

The Experiment

So, I decided to conduct a social experiment.  At the time I was leading several teams that each had anywhere from four to seven members on them.  I randomly approached one member of each team and gave them twenty bucks.  I then asked, “please spend this on somebody on your team.  You can spend it on yourself too but make sure that some of it goes to somebody on the team.  You also can’t tell them that it came from me.”  I read business books constantly, so I think I stole this idea from one of those books (may have been Adam Grant’s Give and Take) or maybe a Ted Talk.  I didn’t ask them how it went.  I acted like it never happened.  A couple of weeks later, I gave another person from each team a twenty with the same instruction.  I didn’t tell them that I did the same with anybody else.  I repeated this with new people a third time several weeks after that.

The results were interesting.  The communication levels in all the teams rose.  The productivity in most of the teams rose.  In the smallest team, it rose the most.  On that team, they actually started a habit of going out to lunch together where one person would often pick up the bill.  Generosity had become much less awkward and the team was better because of it.  However, in one of the teams, productivity had actually fallen.  That team had a member on it who was always happy to accept free stuff but he never did his part to provide it.  This pissed people off.  He worked in much the same way but this experiment exposed that in a social context as well.

The problem with a person like that is they bring everyone down to their level.  Nobody wants to be taken for a chump.  When someone is not doing their part everyone around them feels devalued and morale drops .  Needless to say, we let that person go not too long after and I berated myself for not picking up on it sooner.  The problem with this guy was he was very agreeable and he did a good job of calling out every accomplishment of his regardless of how minor.  In other words, he was good at managing up.  It was a valuable lesson learned, the increase in productivity was a great bonus and all it cost me was a couple hundred bucks.

Some of the Reasons

Back to generosity.  As kids we loved giving presents.  It gives us a shot of oxytocin and makes us feel like saints.  My youngest daughter will still go into her room and wrap up random stuff and give it to us on any given week night.  Where does that go?  Why does it become weird?

There’s a lot of reasons.  The first is that we sometimes receive gifts we don’t like.  Like if you ever get a piece of clothing and you just know it’s something you’re never going to wear.  The giver always says, “there’s a gift receipt in there, feel free to take it back.”  Jim Gaffigan had the best response ever for this – “oh thank you, you gave me a chore for Christmas.”  We know that we don’t want to give something that someone doesn’t like so sometimes we obsess over getting the best gift for that person and often we just say, ‘screw it, I’ll just give em a gift card.’

Another reason is that we don’t want that person to feel indebted to us.  Even though we know it feels good for us to give we don’t want it to feel bad for someone else to receive.  That may sound cowardly but that doesn’t make it any less true or any less awkward.

Though I’m sure there are a host of other reasons it got awkward, the final reason I’m going to talk about is that we don’t give because we have a hidden fear that someone is going to take advantage of us.  This fear makes it awkward to even contemplate generosity.  We’ve all had the experience that my teams had with that self-serving jackwad that took and took but never gave.

Give and Take

Adam Grant articulates this incredibly well in his book Give and Take.  He says that all of us fall into one of three classes.  Most of us are matchers.  A matcher believes that if I give you something I expect that you will match it at some point down the road.  This has become the normal social contract.  Then you have the takers.  The takers are those that receive but never give.  Finally, you have the givers.  These are the folks that give and give often without expecting anything in return.

altruismHe then looks at success of each type over a broad sample size.  He found that those that were the least successful were the givers.  These are the folks that gave and gave until they burned themselves out.  They had nothing more to give, even to themselves.  Surprisingly, the most successful people were also the givers.  Takers would often do pretty well until people found them out.  Givers that understood the perils of giving were far and away the most successful.  Helping other people, especially the right people (not takers), paves the road to success.

Remember, there are many ways to be generous.  It doesn’t have to be gifts.  You can be more generous with your time.  You can give heartfelt counsel when asked.  You can be there for your friends or family when they need you.  You can celebrate each and every one of the Hallmark holidays if you need an excuse to be generous.

Whatever you do, just give.  It’s good for you.