Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Emotional Baselines and Achievement

A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking.  Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.

Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues.  This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes.  Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.

Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool.  He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes.  They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits.  Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.

I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through.  After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression.  I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that?  Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.

The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life.  The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness.  But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?

I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar.  You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.

When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions.  Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning.  The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.

Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth.  I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Was My “Really Good Day” Healthy?

Last week, I discussed how I felt really good after a particularly productive day.  Just as I was drafting the post, I shared my thoughts with my wife.  She was happy for my sense of accomplishment and expressed encouraging words about the value of feeling fulfilled, productive, and useful.  But, I didn’t just marry her to build me up; my wife is also my best sounding board to check my intuitions.

In her wisdom, she asked if that kind of feeling of satisfaction is a healthy one.  I knew what she was getting at right away.  She wasn’t expressing skepticism about this one instance, but instead she was gesturing at a longer trend of mine.

I have a mindset and set of expectations on myself that are dangerously close to being unhealthy, to the point where I know I would never try and convince a person to adopt it themselves.

You see, I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time.  I don’t mean this in a hustle/grind sort of way, nor does this mean that I don’t waste loads of my time (hello YouTube; you are my true weakness).

I hate napping because I feel like it’s a waste of my time.

I should qualify that a little bit.  When I say a waste of my time, I don’t mean that napping isn’t good for me.  I know that sleep is good.  Sleep will rejuvenate you, help your brain work better, help you feel better, etc.

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A friend conveniently shared this meme on Facebook while I was brainstorming this post.

When I say that napping is a waste of my time, I mean it in an existential sense.  When I sleep, I am unconscious, and when I’m unconscious, time slips past me faster.  It’s almost like time travel.  I go to sleep and wake up in the future.  All the time in the middle is gone, and I can never get it back.  I have done nothing, and made no memories.

This line of thinking extends to downtime.  I don’t handle downtime very well, often feeling guilty to take time to myself to mindlessly indulge in “non-productive” things (the aforementioned YouTube, movies/tv, videogames, etc).  When I give myself permission to focus on fun things, it’s always clouded with the knowledge that by taking time to do a fun thing, it’s time not spent on something productive, and no matter how much fun I have, I know that those tasks and projects I need to work on will still have to be done.  I’m not trading off tasks; I’m delaying progress because time runs linearly.

My wife (rhetorically) asked if this line of thinking is sustainable, and it is obviously not.  Indeed, she rightfully labelled it as a stupid worldview to hold.

The real problem is that while I would never advocate for anyone else to frame their worldview in these terms, I want to (and choose to) do it for myself.  I think this is largely because I’m so disordered in my productivity and I’m always battling against my akrasia (a fancy Greek term for making bad decisions due to weakness of the will).  It’s my way of punishing myself for not focusing when I want to focus.

The reason why I mentioned that this is an existential problem for me is because when I think about my mortality, I know that every moment that passes is bringing me closer to death.  Every moment that I spend watching YouTube videos instead of getting stuff done is non-renewable time that I can’t get back and exchange for time on more important things like my wife, my dog, family, friends, or leisurely pursuits.  Realistically, I have finite time, a finite number of heartbeats, and no way of buying more.  Instead, decisions like not going to the gym, not sleeping, or eating unhealthily have the opposite effect and are likely shortening my life.

I know this is stupid.  I know this is unhealthy.  And I don’t have a good solution to address it.  This isn’t a case of believing that hustling for the sake of hustling is inherently virtuous.  Quite the opposite, I think grinding away should be in service of something higher than itself.  This is, plainly, a different flavour of a fear of missing out.  I’m worried about missing out on things by not being productive.

I don’t have an adequate response to the charge that my worldview is not good.  At least I have some semblance of self-awareness and a great partner in my wife that calls me out on my shenanigans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Self-Reflection: Fear of Rejection

***Note: to hear an audio reading of this week’s post, please click play on the player above***

In my post last week, I discussed my latest thoughts on interviewing and job-seeking.  As an update to that, my boss notified me that I wasn’t selected for the job (she told me early and said she owed me that courtesy instead of waiting for HR to contact me).  When she called me into her office to let me know, she provided some preliminary feedback on the process with a promise to sit down with me for a more substantial review of my interview in the future.

When she was going over some observations about my interview, she started off by commenting that I had a great presentation.  She didn’t get much out after that about my presentation because bone-headed me cut her off so that  I could comment on how bad I thought my interview was.

In reflecting back, I realize how dumb that was of me.  My boss was giving me unprompted feedback, and instead of listening, I decided to proactively cut myself down.

When I think about this moment, this is an example of my fear of rejection.

Prior to meeting my wife, my fear of rejection stopped me from putting myself out there for dating.  When I was rejected, I took it personally.  Not in a “lash out at the person for turning me down” sense, but in the “I guess there is nothing inherently desirable about me” sense.

It happened when I was rejected from jobs.  It’s hard not to take it personally when you start hearing that “we found a more qualified candidate,” and you start thinking that maybe the philosophy degree has taken you as far as it’ll go.

As a defense, instead of waiting for the other person to reject me, I proactively start rattling off reasons why I’m to be rejected, effectively cutting myself off at the knees.  Maybe I’m thinking that the display of self-awareness will somehow benefit me, but in actuality I’m just trying to soften the blow.  The faster I reject myself, the less harsh the ensuing rejection will be.

This is, of course, not a healthy way to view rejection.  Most rejections aren’t personal – it’s not about me.  I didn’t get a date with that person because they didn’t feel a click, or something about their interactions with me didn’t make them desire taking things in a romantic direction.  Or they broke up with me because they didn’t want to string me along.  Or we broke up because they were more interested in something else.

Or I didn’t get the job because there genuinely was a more qualified candidate.  Or maybe the boss thought it would cost more money to get me up and running, and they needed someone with a different skillset than what I could offer.

These things don’t mean that I’m lesser because of it.  It means I’m different in both degree and kind.

My fear of rejection holds me back because it closes me off to opportunities for growth.  It stops me from starting new and uncertain things.  It also stops me from listening.  When I’m afraid, blinders go on and my mouth begins to run.  I get narrow-visioned and I stop listening to what others have to say.  This isn’t a good strategy for success.  It’s really hard to pay attention to what’s important when you drown out the conversation trying to save face and protect yourself.

I know I’m not alone in fearing rejection.  Everyone feels this.  Everyone is a tight little ball of insecurities trying to keep the loose ends from unravelling under the most cursory of examinations.  We want to be liked.  We want to know that we are enough.  We want to know we have value as we are, not who we think we should pretend to be.

It’s a struggle to stay silent when you’re feeling judged, but sometimes keeping your mouth closed is the most important thing to help you do better next time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I Don’t Interview Well (Part 2)

Last week I interviewed for a new position in the office.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very good in interviews.  As of writing, I have not heard back whether I’m moving to the next round of interviews (successful candidates will have a further interview with the manager and an interview with the College President), however I’m not overly optimistic that I’ll be selected.

When I say that I don’t do well in interviews, I have to own the fact that not doing well in interviews is wholly my fault.  For last week’s interview, I spent time studying for the position and about engineering educational accreditation processes, and constructing a presentation about the key domains of the accreditation process, but I spent next to no time preparing my answers to the interview questions themselves.  My preparation was largely to watch two mini-courses on Lynda.com on interview prep, and to take notes on some case examples I could bring up for achievement or behaviour questions.  Only  the night before, for about twenty minutes, did I have my wife run some sample questions past me.  My lack of preparation and practice on answering questions is entirely on me.

I did have one insight, though, that gives me some solace.  In thinking about how poorly I thought my interview went, I reflected on how many interviews I’ve done in my career to date.  This was my 5th interview, and only my third interview for a non-entry level position.  I  realized that one of the reasons why I was so unprepared, and why I didn’t spend more time prepping my answers is that I don’t know how to prepare for a mid-career interview.  The phrase “what got me here won’t get me there,” comes to mind in this scenario.  I don’t yet have a clear picture of what I should be aiming at in interview questions.

I know the mechanics of the interviews – I should be demonstrating value to the employer and painting a picture of what I can do for them.  I should consider what their questions are trying to elicit from me and tailor the response accordingly.  When giving a behavioural- or achievement-based answer, make sure to ground the example using the STAR method (situation, task, action, results).  Link strengths back to the job competencies, and identify weaknesses from the job competencies that I’m actively addressing.  I know these facts, but because I lack confidence in myself I have a hard time selling it to others because I don’t believe it for myself.  No amount of resentment towards the dog-and-pony show process will elevate me above other candidates.

If I want to succeed, I need to get better at playing their game.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

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I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan