The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness


New acts, new thought

Your thoughts manifest reality.

Consider the story of two twins born with the same degenerative disease that left each unable to walk at age 20. One fell into despair and died two years later. The other rejected self pity and led a full life. Did their minds create their fates?

Why is is that so many seniors die soon after they lose their beloved spouse of 40 years? Do they give up?

You've heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, where traumatic events continue to afflict a person. But there is a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, in which the same events lift a person to new heights of resilience. Why leads one airline crash victim to fall apart and the other into noble purpose? No doubt brain chemistry is part of the answer, but how much credit belongs to our choice of thoughts? The great majority, in my experience.

But what happens when we can't change our thoughts?

When I left a career that was no longer right for me I wandered for a year along deepening mental grooves, panicked about money, lacking identity, fearful I would never find purpose. I tried but could not change my thoughts. Exasperated, I changed my actions, and the negativity evaporated. I learned that the thought-reality connection works in both directions.

A psychologist wrote a beautiful magazine article about a woman who came to see her. Her husband had become unhappy and listless. He put all of his energy into a job he hated and at home watched TV all night. This woman convinced her skeptical husband to see this psychologist, who gave him one task: when you park your car at work tomorrow, take a winding route to the front door.

On Monday morning, instead of making a bee-line to the office, he walked around his car, turned left, walked two cars up, turned again, and walked forward in an arc to the door. He tried small variations on this route for the next few days. After a week the wife returned to the psychologist.

"What did you do to him?" she asked. "He's a completely different person!"

At home he was funny, thoughtful, and gave up TV.

The smallest act can be the catalyst for great change.

These last few weeks my major project has led me into a routine and life has turned grey around the edges. Today I'm exploring the city, far from any familiar grooves.

If you find yourself in a grey space, do something new. Playing banjo in your underwear in the bathroom could lead you to something great.


The Waiting Place

I hate waiting. I'd rather be doing.

When I was a kid I used to delay trips to the bathroom because it meant putting 'fun' on hold. As an adult I tend to jam my schedule so tight I can't find time to eat. Sitting idle is a sin, says the world outside.

Line-ups, traffic. Waiting for an important call. These are annoying, but there's a far more crushing brand of waiting: getting stuck. Life stuck.

I want to finish my book, launch my business, finally learn to play Hotel California on guitar. But my last chapter was flat; my business model is flawed; my fingers won't cooperate.

Challenges visited each of my projects all at once this past summer, landing on top of a layer of family and personal worries, and I got stuck. I fell into a funk.

For weeks I made little progress on my goals. I forced myself to keep going and beat myself up when I couldn't find the strength. The funk worsened. I had no choice but to take a vacation and to fire my inner slave-driver (he still loiters in the background.)

"Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realize your hidden potential and power." - Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

In this unwanted rest period I learned there is value in getting stuck.

Ever notice that when waiting at a red light you're more aware of your surroundings than when driving?

Can't stop the funk

Standing still lets us look around. When we look around we can see what's working and what is not in our lives. In this mindful place we can see opportunities and truths we would normally miss.

In my "waiting place" I learned to ask for help. I learned to stop forcing. And I learned to be kinder to myself. These lessons helped move my projects back on track.

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Challenges will come, and some will stop you in your tracks. You can thrash around in this waiting place or you can treat it as a welcomed chance to look around.

Have you been stuck? Let me hear your story in the comments section below.


Lowered Expectations

I am a productivity fanatic.

I get up early and after a healthy breakfast and some meditation I'll write down my ten long term goals and a long to-do list for the day. I try to apply the 80/20 principle to everything I do and schedule every half hour of my day. Push, push, push.

Overloaded vehicle

In the last 12 months I've been ambitious. I ran an election campaign--eight 80 hour weeks of intense, emotional work. I moved apartments, ended a long-term relationship, and left a good job to finally start a business. It's been long days of networking, business plans, and chasing investors.

At the same time I decided to start a writing career. I wrote a 65,000 word first draft of my book in six weeks and since January have been re-writing the second draft while attending a weekly writing workshop and applying for grants.

I started this website and freelance writing. I punish my body at CrossFit 4 times a week, have been teaching myself to play guitar, and reading voraciously while keeping a full social calendar.

The result? I'm badly burnt out.

Golf Wisdom

For months I've been asking myself why I can't keep up the pace; why I haven't hit my goals already. Every time I've slept in, skipped the gym, and just didn't feel like working I've berated myself about it. I'd tap thatWith that much stress, getting started again was murder. And so the cycle continued...

My turning point came a few weeks ago while interviewing a former PGA champ for a magazine article about golf tips.

"Bring down your expectations and your game will improve," he said. When golfers stress about sinking the putt they miss the shot. 'Relax and enjoy' was his advice.

Could I lower my expectations and enjoy more success?

Ongoing debate

Last week I came across an article at Lifehack asking Is it Time to Let Go of Productivity? It was a response to Leo Babauta's zenhabits article Toss Productivity Out advocating tossing goals in favour of working on what you enjoy in the moment.

"It is better to travel well than to arrive at the right destination"
- Arthur C. Custance

The authors disagreed on the recipe for success but I was relieved to know that others have also been a victim of productivity.

The ideal balance of productivity and letting go will differ for everyone, but after my own failed experiment with hyper-productivity I don't have much of a choice but to give the alternative a shot; to relax. To simplify. After all, I'm not a machine.

Do you need to lower your expectations? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Original images at ForkParty and DonkeyTs


Dear Grandson,

I am not 75, nor do I have a grandson, but...

A few years back I read a book about finding your purpose (I can't remember the title.) The author asked me to go through several exercises, for example writing my own obituary, to discover what I want to do with my life. One exercise was to write a letter as my 75 year old self to my hypothetical grandson who was asking for advice about life. I had a lot of fun with it, and just came across the letter today.

I'm no wizened old guru but I share the letter here anyway, unedited, hoping you'll benefit from the lessons I've learned through a lifetime of seeking the best way to live. Enjoy.


A letter to my Grandson, on my 75th birthday

Dear Sefringem,

Einstein funny faceI am honoured by the compliment you’ve bestowed on me by asking for my advice about life, the Universe, and everything!  The best advice I can give you, is that nobody on this Earth has all the answers.  Their wisdom, even if it is gained over 75 years, may not always be applicable to your situation!  We do not know why we are here on this planet.  Did ‘God’ put us here?  Are we just some cosmic accident?  Whatever the case may be, so what?  My point is, finding the ultimate meaning of life is probably a lost cause.  And although for a long time this was a source of frustration for me, at some point it is helpful to realize that maybe the best we can do is just enjoy the time we have here.

So what to do?  The answer? Whatever you want!!  The multitude of possible experiences are virtually endless.  It matters much less what you do, than how you do it.  In my 75 years, I’ve come to a few conclusions on how best to ‘do it’ (best for ME, at least).

First and foremost, as much as possible, do everything with love.  Treat others with love (the way you would want to be treated), and you will be richly rewarded.

Be honest.  A vast portion of human suffering throughout history has been caused by people being dishonest, either with others or with themselves.  The latter is hard to do.  Sometimes we are going to see what we want to see.  The challenge is to always strive to know thyself.

Find what you are passionate about, at any given period in your life.  This will change over time. Your goal is to recognize your passion, grab onto it and see how far you can go in life with it.  Under no circumstances let other people or society tell you what is important to you.  Others may have advice (some of it good!), but never answers.

Laugh.  I spent far too much of my life being serious and unhappy.  I held onto many things too tightly.  And if something is making you unhappy, remove it from your life, if possible.

Surrender to fate/the universe/whatever.  You cannot change everything.  The best you can do is set goals, and work your ass off to get there.  Sometimes you’ll fail to reach your goals, and it is how tightly you are attaching yourself to the outcome that determines how painful it is when you do fail.

Carry your own ‘weather’.  Strive to not let other peoples’ moods affect you, especially strangers, or people whom you don’t respect.

Don’t take other peoples’ opinions of you too seriously.  Someone doesn’t like your lifestyle? Too bad. As long as you are not hurting anyone else and you are living with integrity, love and honesty, you’re halfway to happiness.

Travel.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Get out of your city and your country for an extended period of time.  You cannot possibly learn about life as quickly if you are sitting in your home town, exposed to people who are simply recycling ideas and attitudes.  Not to mention, it’s amazingly good fun!

Be patient.  This one is hard.  Especially when you’re younger, and you’d prefer to have things now.  But a great many of life’s endeavours only come to fruition after several years, even decades.  This is related to determination and perseverance, two other important qualities to develop.

Funny grandpaDetermination allows us to accomplish incredible goals, ones which we may have never thought possible.  I’m sure you have heard of the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Perseverance gives us the staying power to remain committed to a cause even when you experience (sometimes monumental) setbacks.  Nothing great has ever been accomplished by anyone who did not employ perseverance and determination.

Have dreams, and follow them.  The rational man adapts himself to the world around him. The irrational man tries to adapt the world to him.  Therefore, all progress depends on the irrational man.  Go ahead and build your castles in the sky.  Then, work toward putting foundations under them (that’s the hard part, but it’s made a lot easier if you do it with passion and love).

You will make so-called ‘mistakes’ in your life, whether they are determined to be so by society, family, or yourself.  They are going to happen. They are going to be painful.  But God damn it, life is an adventure.  Either you go balls to the wall, or don’t bother getting out of bed in the morning.  The challenge is to learn from these mistakes and not make them again.

Get a good education.  This is something that nobody can ever take away from you.  You don’t have to go to university or college, but only finishing high school is not an option.  You will thank me for this one.


What is your advice for living well? Please leave a comment below.


Wield Courage like an Axe

Who would you be if you were fearless? A Fortune 500 CEO; a famous athlete; a bear-wrestler? Ok let's be less ambitious for a second. If you were fearless would you go talk to that hot barrista; take a Spanish class; get off the computer and go outside?

Dwight Schrute
Fact: he's 80% faster than all bears

Fear is the thief in the night that robs us of our dreams. We're afraid of poverty, so we settle for a soul-crushing cubicle job. We're afraid of how others will judge us so we keep our music inside us. We're afraid our ambition exceeds our ability so we abandon our goals. These are the everyday tragedies.

Like a bully fear can sucker punch our motivation and take its lunch money.  But like most bullies fear recoils when we stand up to it.

Courage is the antidote, a way to say "Hell no I'm not going to let this useless feeling run my life." Sometimes that means welcoming your fears.

As we’re liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
- Nelson Mandela

What are your most important values? Love, compassion, and integrity are mine, and all of them need courage to manifest. I can't love if I fear opening my heart. I can't work to end suffering if I don't have the courage to face injustice.  I can't have integrity if I am afraid of reprisal for standing up for my beliefs.

Courage lets you wield your values like an axe to cut down the barriers between you and your dreams. But where do we find courage when fear smothers us? Here's some humble advice:

Put the challenge in perspective:

Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen? Then, if it's not too painful, think of the worst thing that's ever happened to you (e.g. being dumped, death of a loved one), then realize that you are still alive and functioning, that you got through that challenge and maybe have even healed from it.  Trust that you can overcome this next challenge, too.

Jack Nicholson axe door
Now where did I put those carrots?

Give yourself a carrot:

Vividly imagine the benefits of overcoming your fear: finding a job you love, being able to afford the trip to India, losing the weight. Picture every detail--how will you feel; who will be with you; what will you be doing?

Take the first step, then another:

Some fears can be paralyzing and trying to face them directly is futile. Start small if you have to. Maybe you are facing depression and your challenge today is getting out of bed. That's enough. You wouldn't try to run a marathon without first doing some conditioning. The key is to begin. If you don't try,  you can't succeed. Showing up, as they say, is half the battle.

Chill out:

Laugh. See the world for what it is: a wacky, wonderful place that doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes. Worrying is fixating on your fears, and that's not a good motivator. Love and passion are great motivators, and it's a lot easier to act with those things in your heart when you're relaxed.

"The world is full of horrible things that will eventually get you and everything you care about. Laughter is a universal way to lift your head up and say: 'Not today, you bastards!' "
- Anthony Jeselnik

And if none of that works,

Fake it until you make it:

If you can't find courage, act anyway. It will be scary, terrifying even. But after it's all over you will realize everything went better than expect; that the fear was uncalled for. Repeat, and it will become a habit, then a natural response.

Sometimes you can even use fear as a strength. Nobody is fearless, but life is much more fulfilling when those fears are faced with courage.

Try it and see.


The Pursuit of Excellence

SoldierLifelong learning. Physical and mental fitness. Honesty, integrity, and compassion.

If these ideas get your motor running, chances are you're familiar with the pursuit of excellence.

The pursuit is a challenging one. Excellence asks that you sacrifice--by waking up earlier, studying longer, and training harder. It asks that you plumb the depths of your soul to battle your most vicious demons. And it asks you to hold yourself to a higher moral code than those around you, even when it may cost your life.

But the reward is nothing less than becoming your best self.

To the ancient Greeks, there was no higher aim. They called this special type of excellence areté. The concept is beautifully captured in one of my favourite novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté."

Areté is seen in men and women of great accomplishment, like Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci. But you don't need to be a Renaissance Man to know areté.

"A man can do all things if he will."
- Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

All you need is to cultivate a sense of duty. Not to others, but to yourself. You must believe with burning passion in the value of excellence and work relentlessly to become the man or woman you know you can be.

Vitruvian rockerIf the pursuit requires such hard work, why bother? Isn't it better to relax and enjoy life? Watch some TV? Take the day off?

Maybe. That's a choice we're all free to make for ourselves. But in the pursuit of excellence you will find much greater rewards, like happiness, fulfillment, and peace.

And there is something greater than personal fulfillment at stake. The world suffers from an excellence deficit. Greed and incompetence has led the global economy into turmoil. Ignorance and fear still divide our human family. Building a better society requires that a critical mass of men and women decide to become their best selves. It's worth fighting for.

"The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there."
- Robert Persig

The altruistic argument will not appeal to everyone, and that's ok. We're all walking various paths at times in our lives, and no matter where they lead, we learn something valuable along the way. If you are ready, please join me; the world needs you.

But no matter where you are don't forget to enjoy this beautiful life however you can.


Act Like Your Heroes

Strong WomanI have vivid memories of a certain day in 2004 because late August gave us stereotypical barbecue weather.  The breeze on my skin was a perfect balance to the scorching sun.  The farmhouse looked so nostalgic against the wide sky.

I'm sure the man who spoke to the crowd has no idea that he changed the course of my life that day.  All he did was speak eloquently and from the heart about acting with integrity, especially when it's easier not to.  But when he was done, I decided that my future was in politics, and I spent five years working for him. Ontario's Premier, Dalton McGuinty, remains one of my heroes.

Heroes have been an important influence through my life.

Heroes serve as models for action, and sources of inspiration.

When I'm faced with a tough decision, I look for answers in their experiences.  When I lose my drive, I can turn to their stories to reignite my fire.

I don't believe in worshipping heroes, no matter how swell they may be.  Straying from admiration into idolatry will stunt the growth of your own identity. But you can live your own life while looking up to others.

Richard Branson founded Virgin Records with one store in 1972, and grew that business into a massive fortune that includes a record label, an airline, and now space travel.

Hillary Clinton texting
Sorry, all my hero worship slots are full

Simply making money doesn't impress me all that much, but because of the way he did it--with such spectacular courage and integrity--he's become another one of my heroes.

Noam Chomsky is a third member of my eclectic group of men and women who I look up to.  He is the most credible debater I've ever come across.  His arguments are reasoned, rational, and steeped in a fierce humanitarianism.  I admire that.  Not to mention, the man is a walking encyclopedia of current events.

Integrity, courage, humanitarianism: these values were important in my life before my heroes.  But my heroes have helped me better understand why that is.

Aspiring to be more like your heroes is an excellent opportunity for growth.  So act like your heroes.

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You’ve gotta dream

I love my life, but I'm working to create one that's even greater.  I'm doing it for me.  I want to know what I'm capable of.

Dreaming is my first step in getting there.  It's damn near impossible to create something you can't imagine.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self." - Ernest Hemingway

Venn Diagram

The sweet spot

I dream about finding work that feels like play; a calling that makes me lose track of time, and forget to eat.  Ideally I'm great at whatever this is, and I get paid like a rockstar.  I'll keep following this dream, but won't agonize because I don't have it figured out just yet.  In the meantime I'll keep learning while doing what I enjoy most.

I imagine meeting every challenge with courage--facing my worst fears, even welcoming them in.  I will always try to act with integrity.  I will not cheat, steal, or lie.  I will stand up for what I believe is right, especially when it's difficult.

I will try to love everyone unconditionally because that's how you create a better world.  When I meet others struggling with arrogance, hatred, and indifference, I will remember that those negative emotions are also opportunities for growth--theirs and mine.

I'm going to laugh more because life can be comical if you let it.  It's incredible, and beautiful, and terrible.  We have such a short time to experience it all, why not try to appreciate even the 'bad' parts?

I will work hard to publish a book, and to launch a business.  I will play guitar in a band, and get in the best shape of my life.  I will spend my winters somewhere warm.

My dreams are now in print for the world to see.

What are you dreaming about?

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Give Yourself a Break

Being awesome is hard work.

I don't pretend to speak from experience, but I do watch people closely.  Nothing good comes easy, except to lottery winners and that one jerk at the office.  Exceptional humans work hard.


Better than a six pack

You want a six pack? Be willing to spend six hours a week at the gym for months and to give up your Baconators.  Want to make a million dollars?  Goodbye Saturday night benders.

You already know this, so let's move on.

Great people do something else: they give themselves a break.  If they miss a guitar practice session, or fail to study for 10 hours like they promised, they don't punish themselves (much.)

I know many highly motivated people--brimming with potential--who torment themselves because they aren't financially independent at 30.  That torment is not helpful.  Piling on stress and self-doubt because you fell short of your goal is devastating to your motivation.

The successful fail all the time.  They understand that failure is just a learning tool, and not a reflection on their being.  When they fail, they don't waste time with guilt or sorrow.

They DO comb the wreckage for valuable lessons, then tweak their behaviour.  Sometimes, they even laugh it off.

So how can we laugh it off, instead of whipping ourselves for our imperfections?


We 'aint found shit

1) Consciously relax before you start a project.  You'll have fun from the beginning, instead of stressed until you achieve the 'perfect outcome.'

2) Be grateful.  It's a popular tip lately, but it works.  When you are thankful, you'll realize that YOU are creating at least some of the good in your life, and your perceived shortcomings will matter less.

3) Spend less time thinking about the future.  Living in the past can lead to depression, the same way that living in the future can lead to anxiety.  Let go of the outcome, and enjoy the journey.

Being awesome is compatible with being good to yourself.  So be good.

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