We need doctors who specialize in heart surgery and spend 100% of their time helping other people. But we also need polymaths (Newton, Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) to combine ideas to push society forward.
As Dilbert’s creator Scott Adam points out, achieving excellence is rare.
If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.
The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.
The fox and the hedgehog
Said the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” When it comes to survival, all the hedgehog has to do is protect itself with the skill of its spines. But the fox is more versatile. It can adapt against a multitude of predators and different scenarios.
Furthermore, our success may hinge on what two or more things we can combine. We should think about our life experiences and how we can merge them with preexisting skills. We have the responsibility to create our own vocation if it doesn’t yet exist.
Both experts and practicians make the world a better place. One can’t exist without the other.
Talent is overrated. Hard work, discipline, grit, and consistency are attributes that increase your chances of getting what you want.
Luck is a matter of being specific about your goals and two, putting yourself in a position for good things to happen. It is the accumulation of small and steady risks that make the biggest difference and change your life.
For Henry Rollins, that meant taking a bus from DC up to New York to see his favorite band, only to go on stage and sing with them. To his surprise, they called him back later for an audition and became the band’s lead singer. In other words, he caught his lucky break and escaped a life of minimum wage jobs.
Some people get lucky by default. Their network leads them into opportunities because of the sheer dazzle of their last name. For others, hitting the jackpot it is the result of striving to achieve a very specific effort and finding those luck circles that help you make it happen.
Luck draws on the law of magnetism
Luck may be a random phenomenon but it works like a magnet, gravitating toward those hungry enough to take chances.
Success is an accumulation of little efforts that build on top of a grateful perspective, a practice of modesty that keeps you doing what you’re doing. Says Rollins:
“I don’t have talent. I have tenacity. I have discipline. I have Focus. I know, without any delusion, where I come from & where I can go back to.”
“There is a positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote.
Futuring is a tough business. We toggle between our present number of choices along with desires and goals that reinforce the prioritization of time.
Knowing that we can’t do it all, most people reach for what’s most immediately accessible and end up regretting about what could be. They stifle themselves in exchange for feeling ‘safe.’
For others, death compels action. Their gut instinct refuses to accept standing still and succumb to mediocrity. Yet, their expedition may incorrectly rest in jealousy, a fear of missing out, rather than chasing a purpose.
Faith in the unseen
Our vocation chooses us. We grade our impact by how much we cling to that sense of priority rather than chasing other people’s dreams.
In reality, there is nothing out there that will make us fulfilled forever. But the attempt to cultivate happiness by pursuing what’s meaningful remains a noble attempt to maximize our time on Earth.
We all start out with a dream, a goal of someone or something we want to emulate. We keep that dream close, putting up bedroom posters and memorizing phrases that propel us to keep pushing toward our goal.
But then something else happens along the way? The creative gods tell us to do something else instead.
“The grind is not glamorous.”
Casey Neistat wanted to be a filmmaker, another Spielberg that entertained the masses. But he didn’t have enough money nor resources. So he chased the dream for ten years and succeeded: he entered Cannes and won some awards etc. until one day he realized he was pursuing the wrong end. “Fuck it,” he said. “I just want to make internet videos.”
See, when we hunt down goals, we usually get redirected to something else that’s more personal. Technology broke down all the barriers to traditional creativity, production, and distribution. YouTube is Neistat’s movie theater.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
Sure, imitate at first and get really good — everything is practice. But we shouldn’t forget to reflect and dive deeper into a passion that excites us the most. As Jim Carrey said, ‘your vocation chooses you.’
Don’t fight what’s natural even if no one else is doing it yet. Give in to the original inclinations and push onward.
If you knew how your life would end up, would you want to know?
Some of us want to skip to the finish line, fast-forward to the end of our own movie. Some of want to follow the herd and loop around the racetrack in predictable mediocrity because it feels safe. Others prefer to embrace life’s uncertainty with healthy doses of optimism and doubt.
We already know what calls us. Vocation chooses us; we must follow that instinct and see it where it leads.
Patience is a means to progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor should we skip it to run to Paris. Life ebbs and flows, like a sine wave.
Fragility and ignorance are strengths; they ensure we don’t skip any steps along the way. As John Berger wrote, “You can plan events, but if they go according to your plan they are not events.”
Like a planted seed, we are stuck in the roots of imagination with everywhere to go. The maze, frustratingly fascinating, goads a search for meaning. Lost and found is precisely the point.
Do we really need a plan A or plan B when there are so many other letters left in the alphabet to try out?
It doesn’t matter how many times it takes you. 26 letters, 26 doubts.
From petty arguments to politics, do we really need to be right all the time?
Rightness is a quirk in human development. Our view isn’t valid until we can suspend judgment and try to entertain another person’s thought.
Yet there is one trait that we all share: the ability to keep learning. Self-improvement is the indispensable tool outlined in Carol Dweck’s study on work performance at Stanford:
The primary takeaway from Dweck’s research is that we should never stop learning. The moment we think that we are who we are is the moment we give away our unrealized potential. The act of learning is every bit as important as what you learn. Believing that you can improve yourself and do things in the future that are beyond your current possibilities is exciting and fulfilling.
Permanency begets stagnancy, just as ignorance blindsides us down the road. Nothing is duller than a linear path to completion. Given the plasticity of a human mind, strengthening our ability to deal with uncertainty is priceless.
If you want to go pro in any profession, at some point, you’re going to have to practice your beliefs and take calculated risks to gauge their rigidity. Doing the work removes the cobwebs of uncertainty.
Lostness can also be lucidity, where hesitation converts into a prompt. Dance with the fear and see where it takes you.
Is it better to be told what to do and ride around the racetrack of life or remain goalless, floating with the tide?
“We do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES…we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.”
To pick a goal is to assume that there’s an end. But we are always developing. Our perspective today is different than it was a decade ago, and so forth. Experience and knowledge change us.
Instead of searching for goals, Thompson implores, “look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.”
All believing is betting. But God rewards the courageous. Almost always the assured outcome is the unique path we take ourselves.
“No one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.”
Skip breakfast. Shorten your work week to four hours. Strengthen your focus. The obsession with productivity is getting out of hand. Why do humans want to maximize their output so they can become more like computers? What are we going to do with the extra time, do even more work? Perhaps, but only if the work is purposeful.
“The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.” – Ira Glass
What people are actually requesting when they pursue life hacks are shortcuts. But if you seriously want to achieve something, you can’t skip the fundamentals. At some point, the flaws are going to reveal themselves.
Humans are fallible. We need sleep. We need proper exercise and nutrition. The same applies to our digital diet, avoiding the taxation of a high-attention economy. No wonder Arianna Huffington is focusing one hundred percent on health-themed projects. Distraction is the obesity for the mind. And stress kills brain cells.
The frenzied culture of Silicon Valley is a hell of a drug. Maybe it’s time to slow down and re-evaluate, keeping the patience in working on something important instead of running off to the next thing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. Below are a few inspirational excerpts from her New York Times article ‘Advice for Living,’ as adapted from her forthcoming book My Own Words. Her life’s advice is a continuation of what others told her when she was growing up.
First, a mother who, by her example, made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to “be independent,” able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.
On the power of words
At Cornell University, my professor of European literature, Vladimir Nabokov, changed the way I read and the way I write. Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.
On listening and marriage
“In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.
A lot of people think thinkers can’t be leaders. But that’s exactly what leadership is: thinking. The leader of a group takes what they read and hear internally and externally and originates his/her own thought. They speak for themselves. As former Yale professor and best-selling author William Deresiewicz said in his 2009 speech to West Point cadets:
“If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.”
It’s lonely at the top because being the boss requires a lot of independent reflection and focus. Leadership also takes courage, as saying what is unpopular or unknown makes other people uncomfortable. People wish for the status quo as much as they seek certainty.
Being a leader precludes following. The problem is that some of the world’s leaders continue to jump through hoops like “excellent sheep” to get to where they are. They go to Ivy League schools and get straight A’s and go on to become CEOs and lawyers where they keep the usual routine going.
“Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.”
Success, therefore, is that which appeases others more than it leads. Some of the most educated people choose to chase the herd. On the other hand, real leaders embrace complexity. Deresiewicz uses US General David Petraeus as the apotheosis of a great leader.
“What makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.”
So, how does one think well?
Thinkers concentrate. Thinkers avoid multitasking, distractions, and the tendency to ape the thoughts and opinions of other people. Like philosophers, they search for their originality and tools that will help guide their action.
“Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”
Leaders require solitude. Isolation requires concentration. Silence means spending time in the canvass of your thoughts and not running away from denial on Facebook and Twitter. “Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality.” Mulling over thoughts, ideas and observations is a single task driven to achieve honesty with yourself.
“Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.”
Thinking too, is a social act, not just with anyone but with people you trust. Says Deresiewicz, “One of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.” Speaking your mind to a friend removes the friction of judgement and helps clarify your thoughts and opinions when they still need pruning.
Thinking is preparation. The more deeply you know about yourself, the easier it will be to react naturally to any situation, from the battlefield to major decisions at work or personal life. Solitude and leadership go hand in hand because when it comes to big decisions “all you really have is yourself.”
A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.” – Oscar Wilde
When it comes to decision-making, first you decide, then you deduce. Of course, life’s biggest decisions such as marriage or a career change are some of the hardest decisions to make because the fear is that they won’t work out. The bigger the risk, the greater the hesitation.
‘This might not work.’
People like to play it safe. It’s easier to adopt the status quo than playing the long game and facing the fear of uncertainty. Chance is risky. Change is scary.
We’re so scared of making a change that we outsource our decisions to other people. In other words, we seek their permission. Not surprisingly, our family members and peers recommend circling the race track rather than pursuing the labyrinth of self-discovery. Warns financial advisor and essayist/sketcher Carl Richards for the New York Times:
“People expect you to stay how you are, to maintain the status quo, to stay the course. And if you get bogged down looking for that affirmation to make a change, you may never make it.”
All believing is betting
People that do risk change–on their volition or because of a coin toss–usually end up thinking the best of it. When we change, we grow.
“Based on the results of tossing over 20,000 virtual coins, the study found that people were happier after making a major change, whether they did it because the coin forced their hand or because they decided on their own.”
The only person we need permission from is ourselves. Indecision is a decision, albeit, the wrong one. Still unsure? Here’s your permission slip.
“Whatever it is, you now have permission to do it.”