The 400th Thanksgiving

It’s incredible to think just how far we’ve come in the past 400 years.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

A bunch of incensed Pilgrims boarded a ship to a new world, seeking respite from an overbearing church and state. They made their sojourn to Zion.

Many died. Those who didn’t nearly starved to death.

But those who survived discovered the bedrock upon which to build a new civilization: freedom (and property rights).

You’ve got to think those early colonists understood the price of their newfound freedom.

It cost many their lives. But even those who outlived famine-like conditions, disease, high infant mortality, brutal weather, bouts with wildlife, and countless other challenging conditions…they all paid their pound of flesh for their freedom.

During that chapter of the American experiment, freedom didn’t equal material comfort.

It was impossible to escape from the reality of responsibility.

Even while the early colonists experimented with commune-style living and production, if enough people didn’t produce, everyone would starve.

How’s that for responsibility staring you in the face?

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

John Smith

Modern Abundance

It’s a tall order to imagine what it really must’ve been like in the earliest chapters of America.

I imagine people were brutally aware of their own mortality. Even those who still wanted to mooch off the labor of producers.

Quite unlike the world we live in today. Abundance outflanks us all in this modern chapter.

The standard of living has risen at least ~1000x over the past 400 years.

We’ve continued to innovate our way through challenges (in spite of those who’d still prefer to mooch off the labor of producers).

But with so much abundance, it’s often easy to forget the imperative of responsibility.

Abundance is not a given.

It’s the byproduct of men and women who’ve (metaphorically speaking) boarded ships to a new world, sojourning to Zion.

People who’ve taken radical responsibility for breathing life into their own visions for a better world. In so doing, they’ve put their shoulder to the plow, and produced a windrow of abundance.

What will my grandchildren be thankful for?

Sometimes as a thought experiment, I like to imagine what the world will be like several generations from now. (Especially for my family, if I have the good fortune of having kids and living long enough to witness grandchildren.)

Two generations from now, will people look back at think, “Wow, I’m thankful for the sacrifices previous generations made to build the world into something better.”

Who knows. Most of us will be long dead.

But I have to think, if enough of us today do our damndest to live out the best version of ourselves, and build the best “now” that we can, then the future ought to end up a little brighter and better than it is today.

We have such an advantage in building the future today. Especially compared to the harsh conditions of the past.

Sure, plenty of opportunity for progress remains. But so long as we don’t completely burn the American experiment to the ground, then maybe, just maybe, every future generation can continue to find it a little bit easier than the previous one had it to make a start.

That’s the true miracle of the past 400 years, in my opinion.

Forward Locomotion When Lacking Information

It’s a challenge making decisions when you don’t have all the facts.

The old adage, “Do the best you can with what you’ve got”, is a nice, but hardly comforting sentiment.

After all, not just any decision will do. We want to make decisions that advance us toward something – some idealized future state or goal.

Some things that help me:

First, gain as much clarity as you can about the end destination. Describe this better state intimately if you can.

Use that description to imagine your path forward from where you are.

Who must you become to achieve this vision?

What must you do?

And equally important – who must you avoid becoming? What must you not do?

The answers to those questions determine your guardrails.

On one hand, you’ve defined your ideal and components of it.

On the other, you’ve defined a set of activities and behaviors which will either increase the difficulty of or altogether disqualify you from reaching your goal. Which is often easier than listing out the activities and behaviors that will help you.

In between those two states are behaviors and activities that could help you advance – or not – but won’t hurt your progress.

Sure, that might be useful at the abstract planning level. But what about decisions in isolation?

Here’s another tip that works for me:

When considering a decision, don’t ask “Will” this help me? Rather, ask “Could” this help me?

Language matters. “Will” offers determinate outcomes. It closes off your mind from possibilities. While asking “could” activates your creative faculties.

The truth of the matter is that you’ll almost never be able to predict definitively how one choice might play out over time. (Within reason, of course, you can safely assume how eating a bottle of rat poison might impact your fate.)

Occasionally, you’ll be forced to choose among two options. Both may seem positive. But you may be uncertain which one will help you more.

Here’s what I recommend:

Don’t lose too much sleep over the decision. Early in your life and career, say yes to everything that’s not a hell no. If one decision excites you more (or challenges you more), pick that.

As you gain more leverage, you can adapt this to say no to everything that’s not a hell yes.

Rather than fret over the relative value of two decisions, focus more on avoiding stuff you hate.

So long as you are moving in a direction away from what you hate – and away from behaviors that disqualify you from your “end prize” – then you can safely advance with confidence.

How To Change Your World

When you recognize your own power to influence your immediate surroundings, you can make a big difference in your world fast.

You can rearrange rooms to make them more beautiful.

You can speak more respectfully to others.

You can laugh more, and invite others to join in.

You can leave things — and people — better than you found them.

You can get your life in order — personally, professional, financially.

Of course, you can do the opposite of all those things, too.

The same power that creates can destroy.

But, given the choice, what would you choose?

Will you make the world uglier?

Or will you make it more beautiful?

Today, and every day, I choose to make the world a more beautiful place.

How To Reduce the Chaos of Endless Choice Realities

One big challenge of life is figuring out what targets to aim at. We live in a time and world with nearly unlimited choices as it relates to careers, location, income goals, industry, and beyond.

So how do you navigate this – to ultimately discover the “right” target to take aim at?

Here’s one suggestion to get started: Find one goal you could aim everything you’ve got at.

By picking a goal that requires you to aim above the horizon, you force yourself to imagine who you must become in order to achieve that goal. 

This is a useful strategy for several reasons.

1. It allows you to orient yourself. Where (and who) are you today, versus where you’d like to be as a result of achieving your goal (and rather, who you’d like to be).

2. It reveals disparity. Moving toward your goals necessitates progress and change. You cannot become who you must be by accepting your current circumstances. Goal-setting contrasts the future you desire against the reality of your present, which enhances your own self-awareness.

3. It gives you a roadmap for how to behave. When you set a goal, you choose a target to take aim at. Which gives you a focal point into the future that you can work backwards from. Some choices will help you make progress toward that focal point, while others will lead you astray. 

Negotiating With Your Future

Setting goals forces us to detach ourselves from our past and present circumstances. Even without taking action on them, it offers an exercise in future-orientation.

If you really want to make headway toward your goals, then you’ve got to take inventory of your life –from the choices you make to the activities you spend your time on to your current available resources.

Taking inventory reveals positive and negative stock.

If you discover things that are holding you back, then if you really want to achieve your goals, you’ll be forced to address the baggage in your life.

Sometimes, you’ve got to sacrifice those demons at the altar of your future in order to stand a shot at advancing ahead.

Changing Course

As you go throughout life’s adventure, you’ll likely discover other targets worth aiming at – goals that you’d rather pursue. And you’ll almost always have different interests pulling you in different directions.

If you can go all-in on at least one thing – even if only for a short period in your life – you’ll build discipline, you’ll gain credibility, and maybe most importantly, you’ll build momentum.

You won’t always achieve the goals you set out to. Often, your pursuit of one goal will reveal an entirely different, more exciting path – when that happens, change course. 

This variety of life, though, should not be a cause for anxiety. Instead, it’s a good cause for excitement and enthusiasm about the endless possibilities that are waiting for you.

But you’ve got to start first. 

There are opportunities out there that you don’t know about yet. And you likely won’t discover them until you take aim at something and start moving toward it.

That’s the great adventure of life. It’s an ongoing discovery process, and you can always change course as new opportunities reveal themselves.

Design the World Around Your Ideas, Not Your Ideas Around the World

A common point of frustration I encounter involves coming to odds with the world around me (and other people in it).

When I was younger, this was often a function of assuming someone else should respond a certain way – of expecting other people to respond the way I would things.

Eventually, I learned a better strategy is to assume people experience the world differently than I do.

As I’ve aged, I’ve come face to face with a similar challenge. Not only with people, but with tools, experiences, rules, institutions.

The frustration usually occurs when someone or something claims, “That’s not the way this works,” or “That’s not the intended use of XYZ.”

I encounter these “invisible” obstacles often.

Usually it’s the function of someone who’s a stickler for tradition or rules. Real letter-of-the-law types, who can’t see past dried ink to the spirit of things.

Anyway, whenever I was younger, I often felt the temptation to change myself when I encountered obstacles. As if I needed to mold myself to the world around me, to become a more amicable, compliant, and likable person.

But now I recognize the error of my youthful thinking.

We do not improve our world when we accept things as they are. Occasionally, when we find ourselves up against immovable object, we’ve got to become an unstoppable force.

What’s the alternative, anyway? Living out a life of frustration?

I say no to that.

I’d rather create the world I want than force myself to settle for a world that is less than it could be.

Whenever I encounter obstacles now, I try to turn the tables. Instead of asking questions like, “How does it work?” I like to ask, “Could it work this way?”

Sometimes when you read the user’s manuals of life, all you can hope to find is a set of instructions for intended use. Which offers a limited view.

If you can learn to look at the world through a lens of possibilities, everything opens up.

This is especially relevant when learning new things.

Maybe we do have to learn new things along a specific domain before we can apply them others. Like learning the alphabet before we can learn to write a novel or deliver a keynote.

But the real use of our ideas lies in our ability to move beyond specific, limiting domains – and instead learn to shape the world according to what could be.

That’s the world I want to live in.

Holding True To Your Highest Aim

There’s a concept called apical dominance that I find fascinating.

Basically, it describes how the main stem of a tree or plant take precedence over branches. In other words, resources flow primarily to the main shoot – even at the expense of lesser branches.

This is why many trees wear a crown that comes to a point. Almost like they’re aimed upward toward God in their growth patterns.

It’s also why you see a lot of gnarly trees develop . When there’s an offshoot from the main trunk, resources don’t flow properly to one primary branch system. Instead, the resources are divided as the multiple branch system compete for dominance. (At least according to my non-scientific understanding.)

Anyway, the reason I find this so fascinating has to do with its direct application to our own lives.

We all have our own priorities. But keeping those priorities ordered requires a certain measure of attention and resources.

It almost makes me wonder if much of our own suffering results from a lack of an apical dominant ordering to our own lives and priorities.

In other words, I wonder if we struggle most when we don’t have our lives centered toward one highest aim.

When we allow multiple priorities to compete for our highest, best resources, maybe we’re fighting against the natural order of things.

I wonder, still, what life might look like when one aim – our highest, possible aim – becomes the dominant force in our lives.

What happens when we orient our lives around one primary aim rather than trying to juggle everything?

Like the trees, it appears it’s still possible to have a primary aim and secondary aims (our branches, if you will).

And the trees that grow tallest seems to embrace this – if for no other reason than by design or adaptation.

Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the trees. At least, if we ever allow ourselves to slow down enough to contemplate them.

The Rite of a $20 Coffee Maker

I don’t drink it for the caffeine.

And I don’t brew it for the taste.

But if you’ve got a minute, I’ll tell you why it percolates.

Coffee is a ritual. The starter pistol of routine.

Each morning set to brew, I do, that twenty-dollar machine.

It’s no fancy espresso maker. No pour over, nor French press.

The coffee I like best – is from a machine that makes a mess (for less).

It performs one simple function. And reliably it gets by.

All I need is just one cup to signify it’s time.

Time to start the day. And time to make the most.

The aroma of my industry, it smells like burnt blonde roast.

Go on buy your fancy gadgets. Your frothers for your milk. Guzzle super stimulants. And savor favor trade beans.

But never sell short the scrappiness of a twenty-dollar machine.

Putting Yourself In the Way of Success

There’s a story about a guy named Edwin Barnes who desperately wanted to go into business with Thomas Edison (you know, the 10,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb guy).

Anyway, ol’ Barnes didn’t have a penny to his name and he’d never met Edison. But he focused so hard on his goal he convinced himself it was inevitable. All he needed was one shot to speak with the inventor.

So one day Barnes stowed away on a train and just showed up out front of Edison’s workshop declaring he’d come to go into business with him. Impressed and taken off guard, Edison offered Barnes a job – an hourly wage job doing “work unimportant to Edison.”

Haters might say he failed. But legend has it Barnes saw the job as the start of his business partnership with Edison. He put himself in the right place. All he needed was the right time.

Five years passed. Still no sign of opportunity beyond his hourly wage job. But Barnes did not flinch. And that’s precisely when his moment came. 

Edison released a new machine which his salespeople claimed to be unsellable. The invention fascinated Barnes. Who approached Edison with a proposal. 

“Tom, just give me a shot and I’ll sell this widget like ice-cold lemonade on a Mississippi summer day.” (okay, so I have no idea what he really said, but you get the picture)

And sell it he did. So successfully, in fact, that Edison entered into a business agreement with him to sell the machine all over the country. Which made him rich beyond imagination.

But this story isn’t about getting rich. It’s about the power of intention mixed with deliberate action.

Barnes did not wait around hoping and wishing that a great career opportunity might just happen to him.

He fixated on a specific outcome. Then he put himself in the way of opportunity.

Post inspired by Napoleon Hill’s Think & Grow Rich. Originally published via a weekly newsletter I write about how to live a more self-directed life.

Success vs. Fulfillment

I think it’s difficult to find real success unless you prioritize fulfillment.

Sure. You can get rich. Gain status. And win the praise of others. But if you’re unfulfilled, does it even matter?

When I think about my own life and how I’ve defined success over the years one thing seems constant – the goal posts always move.

Each achievement challenges further achievement. Incomes goals, career goals, status goal…you name it. Anytime I’ve been prioritized “success” over fulfillment, I’ve found it fleeting.

On the flip side, when I’ve prioritized fulfillment, I’ve found something altogether different to be true – an ability to be content without sacrificing future ambition.

A Personal Tale

When I graduated college I set a pretty ambitious goal for myself: double my income every year.

It was easy at first. Year one. Year two. Even year three. But as you can imagine it became more difficult in time. Through my first five years in the real world, I almost succeeded too. But then I discovered something I didn’t anticipate. More money did not make me happier.

As obvious as this might sound to you, it was actually difficult for me to understand. Because I had a wrong notion about success. I believed success was a function of keeping score.

That belief really led me astray for quite some time. It had me looking out into the world at what others were doing. Comparing myself. And then beating myself up over all that I had not yet accomplished by my age. Which honestly got pretty exhausting after awhile.

Two Steps Back, One Leap Forward

A few years back I left an awesome job at a company I loved. I’d been there awhile. I’d climbed the ranks. And I was making great money.

But something had gone missing. I’d lost the fire for my work.

For awhile I tried to rediscover it. I tried working harder. I tried working less. I tried journaling. I tried therapy. I tried changing up my schedule. I tried changing up what I was working on.

But the more I searched the less vigor I felt for my work.

After months of battling with this, I found a new outlet – an opportunity to go work on something entirely different. To leave behind one opportunity and pursue the next. A new challenge, if you will.

It scared me. But (thankfully) after some prodding from a friend, I made the leap.

I went from big fish in big pond to a small pond where status had no bearing. I took a +40% pay cut. I left a team where I’d been around longer than almost everybody to a team where I was very much the new guy. I went from a role where I knew exactly what it took to succeed to a role that I was larger learning everything on the fly.

And a surprising thing happened – I rediscovered my fire for my work.

Somehow my status and income had both declined but my happiness increased. Who knew, right?

How To Find Fulfilling Work

Roman Krznarick has an awesome book on this topic you should check out. It’s called How To Find Fulfilling Work.

In the book he highlights five dimensions of fulfilling work. Here they are:

  • Earning Money (Extrinsic)
  • Achieving Status (Extrinsic)
  • Making a Difference (Intrinsic)
  • Following Your Passions (Intrinsic)
  • Using Your Talents (Intrinsic)

Basically, we all have our own motives for doing what we do. Krznarick explains how some of those motives originate by watching people – see also mimetic desire. Krznarick called these extrinsic motives. These are the things we all usually think about when we define success – like money, titles, where we work, who we know, etc.

But in the stories Krznarick researched, in most cases, people who pursued extrinsic factors actually ended up less happy. They were missing something.

Krznarick argued that the motives that come from within – which he calls intrinsic factors – are actually the key to unlocking fulfillment in our work and lives.

He tells stories about people who left 6-figure consulting jobs to work in non-profits. Or left their high-status jobs to pursue their art. And a whole collection of other examples where people “traded down” (lower income and status) to become happier.

People became happier as the moved closer to roles that used their talents, made them feel like they were making a difference, and stuff they were passionate about. In most cases, they made less money and did less glamorous-sounding work (at least at first).

As surprising as it might sound, Krznarick’s theory suggests it’s actually not the money or status that makes us happy. Rather, it’s the stuff that makes us come alive that leads to real success – success from fulfillment.

Searching For Your Own Answers

It’s nothing new for people to be searching for answers. What’s the meaning of life? How can I be successful? How can I live a happy life?

Questions like this have challenged people centuries. Thankfully a lot of people have kept good notes. And there’s so much we can learn from exploring other people’s struggles on these same topics.

I’m very much still on my own journey of personal development. But I’ve found a lot of answers – and a ton more questions – by digging deep into how other people have approached questions like these in their own lives and careers.

Here are a few resources I’ve found useful throughout the years:

How to Find Fulfilling Work By Roman Krznarick

How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton Christensen

Outwitting the Devil By Napolean Hill

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World By René Girard

Start with Why By Simon Sinek

Do What You Are By Paul & Kelly Tieger & Barbara Barron

The War of Art By Steven Pressfield

You Don’t Need a Job – You Need Guts By Ash Ambirge

There are countless other good resources out there for exploring questions about success, happiness, fulfillment and the like. It’s a personal journey. And these are tough questions to wrestle with. But it’s worth it.

Cherish the Imperfections

Can you imagine how stale life would be if everything were perfect?

The first pancake off the skillet always cooks completely through and every kernel of popcorn in the bag all pops perfectly.

But what if all those subtle imperfections in the world around us disappeared?

Today I’m grateful for all the things in life that aren’t perfect.

For the squeaky wheels. The kid screaming in the movie theatre. The gridlock traffic.

All these things form the beautiful tapestry that is the background of our lives. They grant us opportunities to improve both ourselves and the world around us. Opportunities to become a better version of ourselves – by achieving greatness or by learning humility.

Imperfections shape us, and in some way may always serves as a sentimental reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much further yet we have to go.