The one skill

I owe a large debt to Leo Babauta of Zen Habits for the tremendous number of tremendously useful posts I’ve had the pleasure of noodling over. One way I try to pay back people who’ve been kind enough to create positive things sprinkled around the Internet is simply to point as many people as I can towards said things. If you’d like to try a large dose of—what I lovingly refer to as—Leo-zen, try his free ebook, The One Skill.

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Perfection

[I] will not be better than Socrates; but if I am not worse, that is enough for me. I shall never be a Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property: Nor, in general, do we cease to take pains in any area, because we despair of arriving at the highest degree of perfection.

~ Epictetus

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He who is not even looking

Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse.

That is why we give boys apothegms, what the Greeks call chriai, to learn by heart, because the childish mind, which cannot comprehend more, is able to grasp them. But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gem is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own feet. He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them. It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say? “This Cleanthes said.” What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern? Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity. Produce something of your own. All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the things they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another. Remembering is merely overseeing a thing deposited in the memory; knowing is making the thing your own, not depending on the model, not always looking over your shoulder at the teacher. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that”—is there any difference between you and a book? How long will you learn? Begin to teach! One man objects, “Why should I listen to lectures when I can read?” Another replies, “The living voice adds a great deal.” It does indeed, but not a voice which merely serves for another’s words and functions as a clerk.

There is another consideration. First people who have not rid themselves of leading-strings follow their predecessors where all the world has ceased to follow them, and second, they follow them in matters still under investigation. But if we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking. What is the upshot? Shall I not walk in the steps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old path, but if I find a shorter and easier way I shall make a new path. The men who made the old paths are not our suzerains but our pioneers. Truth is open to all; it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations.

~ Senece, from Letter 33, Maxims

This is Seneca at his mic-drop best. (Unlike the borderline torturous silver point style you also see quoted from on occasion.) Here he’s writing a personal letter to one of his long-time students.

If it’s made you perk up, I recommend digging into this letter further by reading, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, overs on the Stoic Letters web site. That’s also a great introduction to the nuance of translating these very old works; there are significant differences between M. Hadas’s translation circa 1958 and whatever translation Stoic Letters is using, (I looked, but it’s not clear to me.)

Obviously the thread I’m tugging on here is meta: It’s one thing to nod along in the audience of a performance— “yes yes yes I agree I’m doing that yes.” It’s quite another to stand up, and ask to speak next. It was about 10 years ago that I began this blog, and about 5 years ago that I began seriously devoting intentional effort to creating something here.

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I’m not sure that I’m setting much of an example. But trying to walk-the-walk has definitely helped me.

In the spirit of the season: Go read this next, What do you do for fun?

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Meaningful rest

Worse, this combines really badly with my default working style. I have a strong neurotic desire to finish things, and to fixate on my total output rather than time spent working. I’ll often push myself to complete my current task, going well beyond my allocated working time, and not being willing to take a break until I’m done.

~ From https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/iYR9hKzTKGhZwTPWK/meaningful-rest

This is an article examining what it means to rest, and how breaking one’s default behavior is critical. The bit I’ve quoted was definitely a problem for me. Changing my default thinking in the form of “shoulding” on myself has opened up several other doors to change. (Note that I still, very carefully grammared around implying I’ve been successful at change—that’s a default I’m still working on. :)

What’s your default that’s holding you back?

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Getting Less Done

My touch-phrase for 2019 was, “no.” In terms of self-imposed stress and crippling depression, 2019 was the worst year ever; I’ve more than 10 years of journals and I’ve checked. 2018 was bad, but 2019—the year I set out specifically to reduce the problems—was definitely and significantly worse than 2018.

I remain convinced that it is not possible to optimize one’s way out of burn-out. If I have 500 things I want to get done and I’m burnt-out, the solution is to reduce the number of things, not get better at getting things done. I’m speaking from personal experience, not from theory.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In 2019, the “no” touch-phrase was meant to guide me to developing the habit of saying no to things coming towards me. A huge amount of ideas and opportunities come at me, and I’ve gotten much better at saying, “no.” (I’m not quite ready to say I’ve gotten “good” at it; but I’ve definitely gotten better.) I’ve gotten better at evaluating Big Asks from the world, and saying, “no.” A textbook example of that is people/groups which reach out to me, asking for my input or participation.

“No, I do not have the time to do that well.”

“No, I cannot to do that the way it deserves to be done.”

…and so on. Note particularly the absence of the societal lubrication, (a.k.a., the usual lie,) “I’m sorry, but…” Because, I’m not sorry. I’m defending myself, and I’ve reached the point where if my candid, timely, and honest response feels like a wack on the head… Bummer. Life’s hard; get a helmet.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In a previous post (on my personal blog) I mentioned the idea of leverage; positing that I should focus on asking myself, “how much leverage does this opportunity afford me?” This still doesn’t feel quite the right fit for 2020 because leverage per se isn’t a value I’m interested in maximizing.

So that leaves me where?

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

GLD — Get less done.

Maybe that’s the touch-phrase for 2020?

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Meta: I had posted this in the Movers Mindset Forum early in 2020. But, for some reason I cannot fathom—perhaps it was simply an oversight—I didn’t post this here on the ‘ol blog in very-early 2020 when it was written. ;)

Tracking without judging

What has worked better is tracking behavior without particularly striving to change it. Rather than drawing a “good enough” line and striving to meet it, you commit only to tracking the relevant numbers -– dollars spent, calories consumed, miles walked, pages read. What you discover is that simply knowing this data changes what you want to do, so that you’re not constantly fighting with yourself. You don’t need to depend on winning endless should/shouldn’t battles in order to change.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2020/08/the-myth-of-grit-and-determination/

I believe this is true with one important caveat: The value you are tracking must be close to the actions. Allow me to explain…

If you track your weight, this will have little effect: When I pick up a cupcake, the scale is nowhere near—if I could think, “don’t eat the cupcake because weight loss,” then I wouldn’t be tracking my weight trying to affect my weight loss. But, “if I read for a few minutes now I can then mark off—right now—that I did some reading today. So, tracking, “ate more veggies,” works… or, “did something active,”…

Anyway, that’s been my experience. ymmv :)

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You know what you should do?

Years ago, I would often say, “you know what you should do?” followed by some suggestion. When I started reading various things in the, “having skin in the game,” vein, I realized how useless—annoying even—my suggestion were. (For example, to a café owner, “you know what you should have on the menu?” is not going to be useful.) Over time I came to understand that it’s only in areas where one has deep knowledge are suggestions going to have any chance of being useful. (Don’t confuse that with observations—”the door to your bathroom is broken,” is definitely useful to that café owner.) By paying close attention to when I heard myself say, “you know what you should do,” I slowly learned to keep such comments to myself.

Aside: I wedged in a new behavior, as a sort of software interrupt. When I feel the urge to say such things, instead I find a compliment, swap out that text, and then resume speaking. If you’ve ever heard me seemingly-randomly whip out a compliment—to a waiter, to a shop keeper, a manager—that’s often, (but not always,) what just happened.

Unfortunately, although I made great strides in reducing the advice-giving all I’ve actually done is narrowed the area where I give advice. In too many instances I’m still trying to exert my influence. Then when things invariably, (since it’s not my thing it’s someone else’s that I’m giving advice about,) don’t turn out as I wanted I get frustrated. Go figure.

Note to self: Continue to root out the urge to exert influence.

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Expectations

All outcomes are manifestations of forces that are at work to produce them, so whenever looking at specific outcomes, think about the forces that are behind them. Constantly ask yourself, “What is this symptomatic of?”

~ Ray Dalio from, https://fs.blog/2011/09/management-lessons-from-ray-dalio/

This is pretty much the zero-th rule of being a rational agent. (But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear repeating.) The post from the Farnam Street blog is simply a long list of quotes from Dalio. It’s a great list, and it’s assembled in the context of leadership skills. This one, (quoted above,) in particular speaks to me; speaks to me like a drill sergeant. “What is your dysfunction?!” Anyway.

Once I started practicing being rational—yes, emotions are real, they are important, they get their due… But once I started intentionally practicing using rationality as a tool I made huge strides in self-improvement.

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