The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness


Freedom begins in the mind

A man lives in the woods removed from society. He pays no taxes, has perfect freedom of speech, can practice his religion as he likes, and nobody tells him what he can and cannot do.

sH1y0Is this man free? Despite the liberty in his external life he suffers daily over the thought of his lost loved ones. He's angry at something his ex-wife said ten years ago. He hates himself for quitting his job.

In the Western world, especially the United States, we place a premium on liberty and freedom. Yet so many people are unhappy. So many people with the OPTION to do literally whatever they can imagine remain in the same deepening groove of a mediocre job, an sexless marriage, dreams unfulfilled for 20 years.

A woman is serving a lifetime prison sentence in a Middle Eastern dungeon for charges we would consider frivolous. She is chained to the wall and whipped daily. She has virtually no freedom in her external world. And yet she remains blissful in most moments because in her mind she is free. Her jailers may eventually take her life, but they cannot take her mind and her forgiveness of her abusers.

Who is free, the man or woman? Freedom is tied more tightly with state of mind than life situation.

The mind can steal your happiness and the mind can liberate you. Every one of us has allowed our mind to limit our freedom despite what is happening with our bodies. The body is of course only a shell, a vehicle for whatever soul/awareness that inhabits it (that's the real you).

As I've argued, your life situation can have great influence over your mood, and often it's more sane to change your situation than to force your mind to bend. But you will be well off remembering that you have a choice, if not the power, to realize complete freedom.

How do we make ourselves so free that our very existence is an act of rebellion? Above all, watch your thoughts. The solution to all problems begins with identifying the problem. These exist as negative thoughts: you're pissed at your boss, your partner, your kid. You're sad that you lost something, broke something, hurt someone. You're kicking yourself that you didn't tell someone you were in love with them.

Whatever the heavy thought, recognize it. Don't judge the emotion or the thought. Just recognize it. Then let it go if you can.

Issue new operating instructions. What works best? Positivity. I can start this new habit, I can talk to that hot barista, I love my life, even though my roommate is a filthy savage.

And the best way to help these new attitudes stick? Get emotional. Use your anger, your excitement, your sadness to tell yourself how it's going to be from now on.

My grandfather loved to tell the story of how he quit smoking one day long before I was born. He went cold turkey and never touched another cigarette. His method? He told himself, "who is in charge, me or the cigarette?"

That might be overly simplistic, but the principle stands. You are in charge of your freedom. Create it.


Trust the Soup

Where does creativity come from? Is beautiful work the fruit of methodical, superior thinking, and grit? Or does it spring effortlessly from some bottomless source, through us, if only we relax enough to let it?

Who cares? Does creativity matter? If you said, 'yes, of course', then you are fortunate. For too much of my life I labeled creativity as a frivolous luxury, the domain of those with too much time on their hands. Written on the surface of my subconscious I saw: 'artist = slacker'.

But I was just jealous.

I approached every task as, well, a task; a puzzle to be solved, a nut to be cracked. One day a friend of a friend said he "felt sorry for fools with no creativity." He was referring to the suited up 9 to 5 types, not knowing I mingled in those ranks. I fumed in silence and labeled him a slacker, at the same time admiring his ceaseless enthusiasm in his work and life.

Over time I lost joy in my own work while taking pride in a reputation as a 'ruthless taskmaster.' I annihilated to-do lists and generated reams of work that wanted to be good, but that lacked... spark. Lifeless progeny.

Ruthless taskmaster lost its appeal.

I thought back on the rare times in my life that I was excited, inspired, and lost in a pursuit. I thought about the time I was compelled to throw a fundraiser concert, to write a sci-fi short story, to start playing piano again, for no apparent reason.

That work didn't feel like work, and the results had life in them. I created.

Almost without exception those who create great work credit the same cosmic soup for their brilliance. This inexhaustible wellspring has a will of its own, a desire to manifest itself. The artist sees himself as nothing but a midwife for genius.

Creativity belongs not only to painters, writers, and musicians. We're all born with it. You can apply it anywhere -- all you have to do is trust the soup.

(Credit to Steven Pressfield's book Do The Work for the inspiration)


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.


Are your thoughts holding you back?

Lance Armstrong

Believed cancer could not stop him

If my mind was a person, we probably wouldn't be friends.  Over the years it's told me I will never be wealthy, or happy.  That I can't quit smoking, or find a better job.  It's told me to give up on my dreams because they're too big, and it's told me to feel sorry for myself when I face challenges.

Because I trusted my mind, I believed everything it told me.  That was a mistake.

From childhood we all collect beliefs about the world, ones that either serve us or hurt us.  These beliefs literally create our reality, and can be especially dangerous when we are unaware of their effect on us.

Limiting beliefs keep us from our greatness

But I have good news: once you see them, you can pull them out by the roots.

Stephen Hawking

Beat serious limiting beliefs

When I was younger I had a terrible fear of speaking to new people.  My limiting belief was that I'd say something stupid, and be harshly judged for it.  Eventually I became so fed up with how it affected my life that I forced new operating instructions into my mind: that what I have to say is important, and that if other people don't like it, that's their problem.

I pushed myself to talk and it worked out great!  I no longer have trouble speaking to new people. In fact, I've noticed how many other people have a hard time speaking to me as a stranger, and because of my past experience I can empathize with them and help them open up.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” - Henry Ford

Your mind is only a tool that can be used to help or hurt; it is not in charge.  'You' are in charge.  Your being, your soul is in charge.  If you want something from life, don't let limiting beliefs block you from getting it.  You can turn your mind into a friend, but you have to give it clear expectations.

Now go out and get what you want.

Filed under: Goals, Psychology No Comments

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?

Filed under: Goals, Motivation 3 Comments