The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness


Go With Your Gut

Malcolm Gladwell drew me into his recent besteller about intuition, Blink, by opening with a story of art forgery.  In 1983, he wrote, a man approached the Getty Museum with a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC, a piece he was willing to part with for $10 million.

Greek Statue

What a phony!

Naturally the museum did its homework, and recruited a renowned geologist to scrutinize the statue with electron microscopes and X-rays.  Everything, including the paperwork, seemed to check out.  The excitement at the Getty, however, faded quickly.

One by one, experts of Greek sculpture cried, 'fake.'  Nervous museum lawyers began to dig deeper, and slowly uncovered evidence of a skillful forgery.  The investigation was inconclusive despite the experts' unanimity: the Getty bought a fake.

In almost every case, the observers made up their minds seconds after laying eyes on the piece.  Their reason for doubt? "Intuitive Repulsion."  The naked Greek looked too... 'fresh'.  Gladwell argues that everyone is born with this 'sixth sense:' the ability to 'know' something without rational thinking.

Intuition (is) perception via the unconscious
- Carl Jung

I'm inspired by the idea that our capacity for decision making--and for understanding the world around us--is much larger than we're often told.  Do we each possess an enormous, untapped potential?

Sarah Palin
Intuition... not just for crackpots anymore

In a world more comfortable with logic and the scientific method, the idea of "going with your gut" suffers a minor image problem.  Blink has been thoroughly criticized.

Intuition is often portrayed as mysterious and mystical--the domain of prophets and crackpots.  But neuroscience has repeatedly challenged that view, and those who swear by intuition can now cite scientific evidence.  I'll let you intuit my stance.

Whatever your position, you probably know what intuition feels like.  You may have said, "Something is wrong," or, "it just felt right, joining the circus."  It may have helped you to nix a toxic friendship, or to make a smart financial move.

Successful entrepreneurs often cite intuition as their most powerful tool.

Many know that some of the best decisions they make are the deals they pass on.  After traveling across India, Steve Jobs remarked that, “The main thing I’ve learned is intuition."

Steve Jobs
This is actually Steve's meditation pose

Why does intuition make good leaders?  In part, because they use it to make good decisions quickly.  They know what needs to be done without a paralyzing study or long scientific analysis.

If, like me, you weren't born with strong intuition, you probably want to know if it can be nurtured.  Studies says, yes, probably.  Past knowledge and experience boosts intuition.  A Greek art expert can intuitively spot a fake only because she's looked at more than a few statues.  It follows that intuition can grow over time.  But how?

With all skills, practice helps.  Our intuition is strongest when our minds are free of clutter and we're relaxed.  Meditation, day dreaming, walking, music; all of these help us hear that inner voice.  Practice mental de-cluttering.  And trust your intuition.  It may not always be right, but often is, and it will develop over time.

As it does, you'll gain a skill that will help you get more out of this beautiful life.

Filed under: Psychology No Comments

The Momentum Principle

"An object in motion stays in motion" - Sir Isaac Newton (paraphrased... badly)

The other day I had a welcomed realization: this has been a strangely productive week.  Monday through Friday I made it to the gym, wrote thousands of words, made some great connections; even squeezed in a few guitar practice sessions.  If only I could make this a habit.

Pool balls in motion

Let's just ignore friction for now.

Well, why couldn't I?  From whence comes such efficiency?  Good sleep? Hard work? Luck?

I'm sure it was a combination of things, but I give most of the credit to the momentum principle:  I got myself moving Monday morning, and never stopped.

Like a ship or a train, once something's in motion, it's easier to keep going.  Effective humans seem always to be moving.  For them, one success leads to another.

"What saves a man is to take a step.  Then another step."  - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The opposite is also true.  If I step out of my positive routine even for a few days, I have a very hard time getting back in motion.

Losing momentum is discouraging.  My focus fades and I become unsure how to move toward my goals.  Sometimes I want to wash my hands of them entirely.  But there is a cure: to take a step, even when you don't feel like it.

What about Bob?

Baby steps onto the elevator...

Do anything healthy. Go outside, have a walk, call a friend, cook.  Then take another step.  It's amazing how easily something small can break the spell.

I was in a momentumless rut this morning.  But I took a step by going to the gym.  It did the trick, and I managed to salvage my day.

Sometimes the only cure for lack of motivation is rest.  Rest is important!  But there's a difference between relaxing after a hard day, and running out of momentum.  You should be able to feel the difference, but if you can't, ask yourself:

"Did I do something that brought me closer to my goals today?"  If you can answer yes, you're already generating momentum.

Build on it.

Filed under: Self-discipline 1 Comment

Do the Right Thing?

Do you always do the right thing, even when nobody's looking?

Don't feel bad, I don't either.

But I try really hard to.  It's not easy to live up to such a lofty goal, but I've learned that living with integrity will bring you joy.

I have this vivid memory from when I was 7 or 8 of coming home late from the park.  My dad was sitting in the bath tub grilling me about where I'd been.  I wasn't supposed to be out after dark.  I concocted the best lie I could with a 7 year old's brain, but it quickly crumbled under questioning.

"I'll be more upset with you for lying than for anything else you may have done," he said.

Need money for alcohol research

Thanks for your honesty, have a beer...

I came clean.  It was a powerful experience that stuck with me.  For a long time I was honest to a fault.  I couldn't even cheat at Monopoly!

Later in life the stakes became higher, and the tests more challenging.  In small ways, I sacrificed my principles.  I omitted the truth, bent it, ignored it, buried it.  I did mental gymnastics to be able to live with myself.  It was easier than starting a fight, saying sorry, or hurting someone because I had done something that I regret.

This didn't happen a lot, but those few transgressions were killing me inside.  I finally learned my lesson and I'm a lot happier now.

Unless you're a sociopath, you have a conscience; an understanding of morality.  When your actions are in conflict with your morals, you will have a constant thorn in your subconscious.  If the conflict is large, it may manifest in your external world.  You may have trouble sleeping or eating; you may start to hate yourself.  But when actions and morals are in sync, you give yourself a great gift: integrity.

Integrity means "to be whole."  Integrity is being true to your ideals and principles even when that's difficult, even in the face of reprisal.  Even when nobody is looking.  Honesty is just one facet of integrity.

Would you rather be whole, or a fraction of a human being?


Keep it together, man

"That's naive; the world doesn't work that way; you'll get fired!"  I've heard all the doubts.  I've HAD those doubts.  My resolve is tested often, but when I act with integrity, it feels really good.

Yes, it's easier to be part of the status quo.  But just the feeling of being whole is worth any kind of temporary hardship.  More tangibly, you're often rewarded for doing the right thing in the long-run.  It may lead to a better job or a healthier friendship.

Sometimes it's hard to know what is "the right thing to do."  We will all continue to get it wrong at times, but it's your intention that matters.  Strive for integrity, and you will find greater happiness.

That's the truth.

Filed under: Uncategorized 1 Comment

Forgive Yourself… Forgive Others

When I was 7, my mom took away my favourite Lego set as a punishment for something.  I was always getting in trouble, something I haven't grown out of.  In the process, the toy fell to the ground and was smashed to bits.  It was the end of the world.

Lego GuitarI was so angry that I barricaded the door to my bedroom with clothes and stuffed animals, and went to work hatching a plan to get revenge: to break something of hers.

I woke up the next morning and saw my barricade.  I felt silly.  My tantrum hadn't solved anything.  It was only a stupid toy, and I let go of the anger immediately.  Unconsciously, I forgave her.

Kids seem to have a knack for letting go, a talent we lose as we get older.  Don't ask me why this is.

Forgiving others

All of us have been wronged in the past, and it will likely happen again.  As adults, we have to be mindful of how we respond if we want to avoid becoming bitter old scrooges.

"He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love."
- Martin Luther King Jr.

Why forgive?  Most obvious are the tangible benefits: lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and less risk of abusing alcohol and drugs.

More importantly anger, resentment, and desire for revenge keeps you stuck in the past.  Hanging onto these feelings hurt YOU most.  Withholding forgiveness actually gives the person that hurt you power over you.  Do you want that?  The best revenge, as they say, is living well, and in part that means moving on.

Negative emotions can be used as fuel to grow.  The period after a breakup, for example, is an incredible chance to become a better person.   Through forgiveness you can find greater peace.

"The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Arab and Jewish Boys

Forgive or Relive

Forgiving others is hard!  Depending on the offense, and the person that hurt you, it can seem impossible.  Forgiveness can't be forced.  You can't 'will' yourself to forgive or forget.

What you can do is have the courage to face the pain.  Mourning the loss or tending your wounds is a great start.

Recognizing that everyone is basically good at their core can help.  I'm convinced nobody hurts others because they're evil, but out of ignorance.  This doesn't mean I excuse the behaviour, or even forget about it.  I just let it go.

Forgiving Yourself

Many people carry around a lot of guilt.  But aside from pointing out when we've done something wrong, guilt is a useless emotion.

Hanging on to guilt prevents us from loving ourselves, which kills our chance at happiness, prevents us from loving others and reaching our potential, and keeps us stressed.

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
- Paul Boese

Consider forgiving yourself.  You're not perfect, and no matter how much you strive for excellence, you never will be.  Mistakes are inevitable.  Learn from them, then let go and move on.

Your future self will thank you.

Filed under: Psychology No Comments

Speed Reading 101

A girl opens a book, glances at each page for about 0.8 seconds, then flips to the next.  Repeat.  For much of my life TV had me believing this was speed reading.

TV also taught me that one man with a machine gun can take on an entire army, and that supermodels regularly approach nerdy guys for sex.

Speed reading girl

Coffee helps too

Hollywood's ideas about speed reading haven't evolved much.  Screen writers know more about how computers work (Let's enhance that image!) than our topic of conversation.

I knew that the picture of a person madly flipping pages was probably exaggerated, but guessed that there must be some value in speed reading.

By the middle of my second year at university, I was buried under a mountain of books, so I went to my local library and picked up a dusty copy of a speed reading manual.  The results were amazing.

In only a month I tripled my reading speed.

How does speed reading actually work?  I won't be able to train you in 600 words or less, but I'll give you the Coles Notes in hopes that you'll be curious enough to investigate further.

Speed reading is:

  1. Creating good habits to focus on the information
  2. Taking in information quicker
  3. Retaining more of that information

1. Good Habits:

Quick reading requires your full attention and active participation.  This is half the battle.

  • Sit up straight with your feet on the floor, book on a desk centred in front of you; turn pages with your left hand, underline what you're reading with the right index finger.
  • Centre yourself.  Take a few deep breaths.  Tighten your muscles then relax.  Focus.
  • "Key in" to your material: "Handle" the book.  Flip through it's pages, read the table of contents, back and front flaps.  Ask yourself, "What am I going to do with this information?"

2. Absorb information faster:

Reading faster is primarily about training your eyes and brain to process information differently.

Re-read the last sentence.  Did you hear your own voice in your mind reciting the words?

Flipping pages

Thanks a lot, Hollywood

  • Stop doing this.  That voice is the middle-man between your eyes and brain.  It just slows you down.
  • Use your finger to underline everything.  It will keep your eyes from wandering.
  • Harness your peripheral vision.  Take the blinders off your eyes.  This is tough, but try to pull the words off the page in chunks, rather than one or two at a time.  With only a little practice, your brain will get better and faster at doing this.

3. Retain more of what you read:

  • Trust your perfect memory. Have confidence in your ability to remember.
  • Aim to grasp the subject or theme and decide how you want to use the information
  • Do something active with the material: talking to someone about it is the best way to memorize; writing is second best.  Thinking about it after is better than nothing.

I don't always apply these principles when I read. It's nice to take your time with a good book.  But speed reading is a valuable skill that could save you hours for more worthy pursuits...

Like supermodels.


What Physical Fitness Can Do For Your Life

"No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training... What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable." - Socrates

Priorities have shifted a great deal in two and a half millennia.  In the ancient world physical fitness was often a matter of life and death, both for an individual and his or her civilization.  According to myth, Greek city-states dominated in part through sheer physical superiority; their citizen-soldiers were simply better at killing their enemies at 100 paces with a javelin.

Javelin Thrower

How many Olympic gold medalists can you name?

Today we place a low premium on fitness.  Sure, professional athletes are lavishly compensated, but they are a small subset of our population compared to the throngs of their generally out of shape fans.

In the 21st century it's a fact that non-physical ability is a better indicator of your income, and your social standing.  We venerate the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and want to emulate their success.  We spend hours at our desks, in front of computers, in our cars, then in our off time we return to our comfortable homes in neighbourhoods that are not set up to entice us outside.

Don't get me wrong -- personally I'm more proud of my mental abilities than physical.  Making a living as a CEO, a programmer, or a writer is great!  But it's a shame that so few people seek to find out what their bodies are capable of.  Socrates' quote is still incredibly relevant.  Recently I've come to believe the following:

Physical fitness is one of the keys to achieving excellence in all areas.

I've always enjoyed being active, playing basketball and soccer, and lifting weights. But I never took it seriously, never pushed my limits until I started crossfit six months ago.  If you don't know, it's one of the most intense fitness programs out there.

I thought I was in great shape, but my first day was humbling.  After half an hour I had turned beet red, was on the brink of vomiting, dizzy, and the feeling didn't pass for 20 minutes.  But when it did, I felt euphoric!

I kept going back, and while the nausea gradually faded, the benefits only piled up.  My general mood improved, I felt less tired during the day, and I was sleeping like a baby every night.

Hundreds of studies point to positive effects like these.  Most people live very stressful lives, and constant stress raises cortisol levels.  This hurts your mood, increases anxiety, stiffens your muscles, prevents you from relaxing, and kills your sex drive.

Even short, regular exercise sessions can reverse all of this, improve mental health, enhance your immune system, and delay aging.  Exercise builds self-esteem and helps you cut back on alcohol, drugs, and overeating.  It stimulates the release of endorphins, the chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy and relaxed.

It will give you clarity, patience, and concentration; it will increase your attention span and your ability to learn.

All of this pays dividends in the non-physical realms of your life.

Flipping a 600 pound tire

Most fun crossfit exercise ever

After only a month of crossfit I noticed my body changing, which by itself is highly motivating.  I also noticed that I was able to carry a few extra bags of groceries, lift heavy boxes off the floor with ease, and I was no longer out of breath climbing 2 flights of stairs.

But more fascinating I noticed myself unconsciously trying new things, meeting new people, and walking around a lot more confident about facing tough challenges.

For me the most welcomed side-effect of crossfit is that I've learned what it feels like to keep pushing toward a goal even when I feel like giving up.

I have a lot more work to do in the gym, but seeing myself get stronger has been a beautiful thing.

Filed under: Fitness No Comments

Harden Up!

If I let myself, I would spend a lot more time indulging in self-pity.

We all have painful experiences from our past that we dwell on.  I've lost two great loves, a father, and all of my grandparents.  I've lost beloved jobs, pets, and friends.  In the years to come, chances are I will lose much more.

Beyond loss, you may be facing great challenges in the present, and more often than not it seems that these tests don't come into our lives one at a time.  As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.  Sometimes I'm tempted to throw my hands up and say "it's too much, I give up."  I have days where I want to do nothing more than attach myself to the couch and sulk.  But like Buddhists say:

"Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."

Even Alec Baldwin has bad days

I haven't met anyone who can turn negative emotions on an off like a light switch.  Sadness, fear, anger, and other negative emotions can grab our attention with an iron grip.  But I've noticed that some people are better than others at letting go of the hurt, picking themselves up, and getting back to living productive, healthy lives.  This suggests we can have control over our thoughts.

So what can we do to pull ourselves out of despair?

There are many strategies, but almost all of them start with our thoughts.  Lately my favourite is to simply tell myself to "Harden Up."  My desktop background (NSFW language) is an incredible photograph, taken at the invasion of Normandy from a landing craft, of soldiers crashing through the waves toward the beach.  The caption above simply reads, "Harden the F*** Up."

Whenever I feel like indulging my self-pity, this photograph reminds me that my 'bad day' is nothing compared to what these soldiers were facing.  It also reminds me to get back to work, and to fight for my long-term goals.

'Hardening Up' is about exercizing self-discipline and perseverance.

It is a mantra that I use when I'm feeling overwhelemed by life.  "Back to work," and "Do it now" are others I've borrowed from Brian Tracy, which I find helpful.  You may prefer your own, but the point is to find a tool that will motivate you, and cultivate a strong will to pursue your goals.

The benefits will come slowly but steadily.  Psychologists know that those who can delay gratification achieve more, and deal better with frustration and stress.  They also know that the human brain is a machine that, if not kept occupied with productive tasks and positive thoughts, has a tendency to dwell on the negative.

I'll leave you with two final thoughts.  First, I'm not suggesting that you sweep negative emotions under the rug.  That's a recipe for becoming emotionally crippled.  It's imperative that we acknowledge and deal with our pain, but ideally at some point we need to move our focus elsewhere.  Second, all work and no play is not the answer.

When it's time to work, harden up; when it's not, give yourself permission to loosen your tie, and put your feet up.

Filed under: Uncategorized No Comments

The Power and Pitfalls of a To-Do List

I’m addicted to organization.  I may not be certifiably obsessive-compulsive, but my brain often compels my hands to seek order in my external world.  I’ve been able to give up a lot of frivolous habits, like arranging my CD collection alphabetically, but I can still find whatever I’m looking for in my filing cabinet in five seconds flat, and my hard drive is structural zen.

To-do list

You may be overextending yourself...

Early in my life I saw value in applying this casual affinity for organization to my work life.  As a result, I’ve experimented at length with a tool that can have immense value: the ‘to-do list’.  Most people don’t give this much thought beyond “write down what you need to do on a piece of paper.” Simple, right? If you think so, you may be doing it wrong.

My early experiments involved placing everything I needed to accomplish on a master list.  Short and long-term goals alike filled pages and pages of paper.  The paper, if I didn’t lose it, inevitably became so messy with crossed off tasks, additional notes, and symbols denoting various priorities that it became worse than useless; looking at it stressed me out.  It made me feel like my life was out of control.

In trying to do everything, I ended up doing nothing.

Before long I went back to the drawing board.  I needed to organize my organizational list better.  I turned to Google -- after all, they seemed to be getting things done.  They offer a service called iGoogle, where you can customize a homepage.  In addition to installing widgets that allowed me to see at a glance my inbox, top news, the weather, and so on, there are hundreds of ‘to-do’ list apps available.  I chose one that seemed powerful and that allowed me to set up tabs for personal and work tasks, and break them down into daily, mid- and long-term goals.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  My life was back under control.

But not for long.  Every time I loaded my browser, staring me in the face was a list telling me what I should be doing.  It became obnoxious real quick.  I felt guilty that I was looking at funny pictures of cats instead of learning how to play guitar.  Out of habit, I started to avoid looking at my list until it became completely invisible to me.  It was time to reevaluate.

At work I had no choice but to be highly organized.

For ten hours a day I would be expected to produce results on major projects while running (sometimes literally) from one meeting to the next, trying to keep ahead of deadlines while managing the size of my inbox and answer a phone that was always ringing.

Focus on your goalsThen I read an article on the value in writing your to-do list on cue cards.  They’re small enough to hold 10 to 15 tasks max, which forced me to focus on the most important and urgent priorities, and I could create a new one each day.  The method worked.  My list was manageable (eliminating the stress that goes with staring at a sheet of 50+ tasks,) and I regained one of the perks I lost with iGoogle, the psychological boost of physically crossing items off a list with pen.  The only drawback was that I’d tend to use the same card for 2 weeks, where some uncompleted task would stare me in the face for days.

More recently I discovered a new system that’s been paying dividends in my life.  A few months ago I picked up Brian Tracy’s Ultimate Goals Program, an audio series on achieving your goals.  He proposed an ingenious system (and I’m loosely paraphrasing):

  • Buy a notebook, and each morning on a fresh page, write down what you want to accomplish that day.
  • Prioritize them into ‘A’ tasks (activities that will help you reach your most important goals,) ‘B’ tasks (ones that are pressing and should be done today,) ‘C’ tasks (those that you would like to do if you have time, but are not critical,) and ‘D’ tasks (those that you should delegate.)
  • Never complete a C task without having finished your B tasks, and never complete a B before an A.
  • Don’t stress out if you don’t complete everything.  Adding tasks you know you probably won’t finish allows you to ‘procrastinate’ on those B and C tasks in favour of completing the more valuable A priorities.

With this system I don’t carry over tasks for weeks or months, with unfinished items (often unimportant ones) staring me in the face, which cuts down on that overwhelmed feeling.

There’s never enough time in the day, so each morning I’m forced to think seriously about what’s important to me right now.

And using paper means I also get the bonus of being able to cross tasks off with pen.

It’s taken me years to find an effective method, and I don’t presume that what works for me will work for you, but if you’re serious about organizing your life, I invite you to try out a few methods, and find one that sticks.

Your future self will thank you!

Filed under: Organization 1 Comment


Years ago I was sitting in high school business class contemplating just how awesome the new Nirvana album was, when into the room walked a stranger who looked very out of place in his suit and tie.  This clean cut young professional started shaking hands with every greasy 15 year old in the room, introducing himself as if at a sales conference.  It turned out that he was a “motivational speaker,” whatever the heck that meant, and over the next hour and a half he was going to teach us how to live.

Light a fire under your ass

Given my adolescent attention span and the new-fangled ideas he was peddling, I’ve since forgotten the finer points of the lecture, but the premise of his argument has stuck with me, even fifteen years later.

“What would you do if you had a bank account that was filled with $86,400 each morning, and whatever you didn’t spend at the end of the day simply vanished?”

He was, of course, using money as a clever metaphor for something much more valuable: time.  Each day every one of us is given 86,400 seconds to live; not one more or less.

The happiest, the greatest, the most remarkable individuals in history have made do with the same allotment that you and I enjoy.

Think about how much potential that leaves us with!

Our choices have great power.  Acts of heroism stem from decisions to spend our seconds fearlessly.  Each great work of art comes into being through an artist’s commitment to pool enough seconds labouring toward bringing a vision to life.  And without exception, civilizations have risen and fallen based on the quality of choices that men and women made about the use of their precious time.

Each day, all remarkable human beings withdraw from their banks the same block of time as you and me.  In this sense the playing field of life is remarkably level.  Of course success is influenced by birthplace, race, sex, and parental wealth.  But this is a weak excuse to avoid asking yourself: “Am I living my days the way I want?”  I have a hunch that most remarkable people would answer yes to that question.

No one can know for certain if we receive a second chance in an afterlife, but what we can bank on is that we have a fixed amount of precious seconds each day to spend.

Use them wisely.