On What Holds Us Back

Addressing what holds us back is scary. Easier to say instead, “I’ll deal with that later. Now is not a good time.”

The truth is that we are dealing with it, right now, whether we choose to believe it or not. And so is everyone around us. The coping manifests in how we talk, act, and operate in the world. What holds us back infects everything.

It’s scary to open Pandora’s box. But it’s less scary when we realize that we’ve been in the box this whole time.

On Prioritizing

Do immediately what you know you must do now.

Do today what will take you longer to do tomorrow.

Do tomorrow what will take you longer to do today.

And forgive yourself for not doing the things you know you will not do.

On Identities

The identities we define ourselves by matter a lot. Whether they manifest in beliefs in our minds or in conversations with others, ask yourself whether the identity you choose is truthful.

For example, I am a writer. This identity is true, but it’s not because I write “well.” That part is just a story my ego cares about. I am a writer because I sit down, and I write. And that story serves me. It’s accurate, and it’s encouraging. It puts me on the hook in a way that is not debilitating because I can control the outcome. I determine if keys are pressed and words are typed. And if I write, then I am a writer.

But perfection and quality, the story alongside the identity, cannot always be controlled. So put aside the identity, “I’m a good writer.”

Quality is debilitating. Anyone can write one “good” sentence. But you’ll never be a writer without a lot of “bad” sentences being out there. That’s part of the process, it’s part of the identity. Almost none of us go undefeated. Even Muhammad Ali went 56-5. But in each of his five losses, he was still a boxer.

We shy away from identities because self-definition puts us on the hook. It’s the fear of putting ourselves in the arena. As a result, we either shun identities to protect our egos or delude ourselves into embracing identities that are not true. We either become the painter who shuns the label because we haven’t sold enough paintings to be a “successful painter.” Or we walk around calling ourselves singers, even though we don’t sing, or call ourselves businessmen, though we’re not in business.

Don’t hide behind an identity that isn’t truthful. And don’t shy away from an identity because you’re afraid. Criticism and setbacks will come. But if you embrace the identity and put yourself on the hook, you’ll be more resilient.

“I am there for my friends when they need me.”

“I am a writer.”

“I get back up when I fall down.”

I can control these identities.

So be precise, be accurate, be outcome-agnostic and process-focused. Stop hiding, have courage.

On Finishing Strong

There’s something about being so close to completing a task that makes it so hard to finish. The last 1% of what we do carries 50% of the resistance. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art describes how, “resistance is most powerful at the finish line…It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.”

I find this resistance in so many parts of my life. A quick list:

-Getting to bed late, knowing I should brush my teeth, but feeling the warmth of the sheets and not scrounging up the energy to get up.

-Entering the last room of the house to clean and speed-mopping aimlessly, missing 30% of the floor in a rush to finish.

-Writing a blog post and hitting publish instead of proofreading one more time like I know I should because I want the dopamine hit of being done.

There’s an adage in weightlifting that lifting is not about reps 1 through 9; it’s about rep 10. It’s about how we finish. This is where the growth and resistance live. Knowing that growth comes from moving with resistance is a game-changer. We can work this muscle by embracing resistance in things both big and small. If you are learning to run and decide to run for 20 minutes, know that minute 20 is going to be the hardest – embrace it. Don’t taper off. End as you began. The resistance you feel isn’t a sign that you should quit. It’s a sign that you’re doing it right.

So, start now. Put the shopping cart back when you’re done using it. Push in your chair when you leave a room. Hug your family members when you say goodbye. Finish strong.

Better Slogans

Nike: “Just do it.” ––> Make it automatic.

Lays: “Betcha can’t eat just one.” ––> You will eat this entire bag. Choose your bag size accordingly.

McDonald’s: “I’m loving it.” ––> I’m loving it for now.

Apple: “Think different.” ––> Reflect alone.

California Milk Processing Board: “Got milk?” ––> Drink water.

Equivalents

1 framed picture = 100 cell phone photos

1 basketball game played = 25 NBA games watched

1 favorite hoodie = 7 hoodies worn weekly

1 close friend = 50 not-close friends

1 day with loved ones = 100 online purchases

1 minute of alone time = 15 minutes of arguing

1 hour of movement = 3 hours of alone time

1 second of crying = 5 two-hour movies

1 intentional moment = 1/0 unconscious days

Asking Better Questions: How Instead of What

When talking to a person I admire, I love to ask what they do each day. What do they do at the gym? What do they eat for breakfast? What is their evening routine? What do they wear? I’ve always thought, if I do what the person I admire does, then I can be just like them.

When I learned that Mr. Rogers swam one mile every day, I eagerly jumped in the pool and started counting laps. When I learned that John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden with Blackwing pencils, I started writing with Blackwing pencils. It was as if I could become who I admired by simply mimicking what they did.

This doesn’t feel true to me now. Instead, I think we learn from others by studying how they process the world and make decisions based on that processing.  

The better questions are about the how, not the what. How do they think through approaching exercise and how did they end up choosing the routine they did? How do they think about what and when to eat? How do they relate to sleep, if at all?

You cannot become Lebron James by purchasing a hoodie he wore, even though I did exactly that a few weeks ago. In fact, you cannot become anyone else at all. That person is already taken.

No one has the same approach and view of the world as you do. And embracing that difference while refining you own process is the key to becoming a person you would admire. What you can learn from others is how they have related to their own processing. Asking “how” questions helps you better understand your own operating system.

The “how” of what you do is where the good stuff is. The “what” of what you do is just the by-product.

The Pause

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to talk. And I’ll admit it: I often talk too much. I may understand the adage two ears, one mouth, but there is a reason why I still need the reminder. Over time, I’ve seen how my tendency to jump in has affected others, and it’s not always great.

Which is why I love the Pause.

The Pause is a five-second inhale and exhale you take after the other person finishes talking. Simple concept, wonderful results. Three quick benefits:

1) The Pause gives the other person an opportunity to get at the deeper thoughts they have in their mind. In the normal ping-pong of a conversation, the deeper stuff can’t always find a way to jump in. The Pause gives the other person a chance to dig at the richness of thought that lies below niceties and surface-level conversation. The next comment or question they ask will be more thoughtful.

2) The Pause helps you reset before you start talking. It’s the “ready, set” before the “go” of your next statement. The precious breath gives oxygen to the lungs and time for your unconscious to process what they just said.

3) The Pause helps you connect with the other person. If music is the space between the notes, connection is the space between the words. People respect when you take in what they say. While five seconds may feel like an eternity while you’re doing it, there’s no awkwardness in receiving the Pause. It’s natural and will be appreciated.

My Five Favorite Movies I Saw In 2020

Mulholland Drive (2001): An aspiring actress experiences the hope and despair of Hollywood in a haunting fever dream that could only come from David Lynch.

This nightmare puzzle box dazzles and lingers in elliptical scenes that are perfectly sensory and non-sensical. The movie imprints a feeling of unease that only an unshakeable night terror can. A motion picture in the purest sense, the images of the movie are the paintings in a museum you may never return to but will never forget. Diners will never be the same.

First Reformed (2017): A reverend haunted by the loss of his son and the dissolution of his marriage talks with a climate activist, who sets him on a journey of inner reckoning. Will God forgive us for what we have done to this world?

This stunning thriller is about the rage and faith within us all. Filmed with simple sets and austere scenery, the inner stakes are raised to ceiling-shattering levels as questions of purpose, spirituality, and sacrifice envelop each frame. What if everything we thought was true was wrong? What if we were the only ones to know? Am I the crazed or the crazy?

45 Years (2015): A husband discovers that his former lover’s body has finally been found. And 45 years of marriage may crumble because of it.

This movie explores the horrifying questions that linger in any relationship: What if the person I love is a person I never knew? What if my love was built on a story that I told myself? Each scene builds as the quiet terror of a world crashing builds to a surprising fever pitch. The last scene is my favorite ending to any movie I have ever seen.

A Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980): Loretta Lynn leaves home at age 15 with nothing but her voice and a domineering husband, Doolittle. She’ll always be a coal miner’s daughter, but will she ever grow to be more?

The movie rises above the central limitation with biopics: that the movie cannot live up to the larger-than-life people they attempt to honor. This movie is the rare example of the facsimile being not only as good as the original but a distinct and unique piece of art itself. A biopic worthy of a biopic.

A River Runs Through It (1992): A man reflects on his upbringing in Montana and his relationships with family.

The “what” of the movie is straightforward and beside the point. What shines instead is the hypnotic scenery of Montana, the assured acting of the leads, and the stunning shots of fly fishing in action. While hard to describe, the movie is viscerally memorable, describing the distance and proximity between us and those we love the most. As the father reflects upon in his last sermon, we may not understand the people we love, but we love them still.  

The Tao of Star Wars

I’m a few decades late, but I finally finished watching the original Star Wars trilogy. I’ve also been reading a translation of the Tao Te Ching and couldn’t help but notice how the films illuminate a subtle concept from the philosophy: weakness over strength.

I’m fascinated by the strength of weak things, how weakness that flows can be stronger than strength that is rigid. The palm tree sways with the wind and stays standing as the tough oak tree falls. The water nourishes the roots in soil that a shovel could never penetrate. Passivity is not passive. Weakness is not weak. Strength is not strong.

The supreme good is like water
Which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching. Translation by Stephen Mitchell

At the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Luke defeats the Empire not through his lightsaber and X-Wing, but through weakness. Only when he tosses his weapon aside and lets Emperor Palpatine repeatedly electrocute him without reaction does he awaken the humanity inside his father, Darth Vader. Vader’s humanity had remained hidden for the entire trilogy, as Luke attacked, reacted, and fought back repeatedly. Luke won by allowing the evil of the Empire to be as clear and reflective through their actions as possible. He held up a mirror to his father, and Darth Vader saw the evil for himself. Luke did not give up or get cynical or give into nihilism either. His non-action was active. “I’ll never turn to the dark side.” It was a conscious choice that telegraphed to his father: look at what you condone, look at who you are. That wasn’t reactive, cowardly, or resentful. That was true power.

Practice not-doing,
And everything will fall into place.

Chapter 3, Tao Te Ching. Translation by Stephen Mitchell

Often, restraining our strength is powerful. Force of will may not reflect the will of the Force. Listen, don’t talk. Flow, don’t react.