The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

I remember my smug dismissal of the advice when my friend first mentioned it. She said she saw it on Oprah.

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.”

It seemed ridiculous. But I kept thinking about it in the following weeks and months. I started to see how much time I spent worrying instead of doing, and how that was a major source of unhappiness for me. I also started to see how to change that.

Who says such things?

The advice came from Eckhart Tolle, whose acclaims include being listed as “the most spiritually influential person in the world.” It came up in response to a question from a viewer during Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Here’s a two-minute video clip.

My friend’s pithy recounting of his advice wasn’t an exact quote, but she captured the essence of it.

“It is true that you need to take action. It is not true that you have to worry to take action….You don’t need worry. You need action.”

New age wisdom isn’t so new

Once I was attuned to the idea of replacing worrying with action, I saw that the idea wasn’t new. Leaders throughout the ages have all given advice similar to Pay the bills.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. 

– Winston Churchill

 

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

 - Marcus Aurelius

 

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.  

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, also wrote about helping people live richer, fuller lives. This is from his Scrapbook:

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

In writing this post today, I learned Dale Carnegie also wrote another popular book: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

How I use this advice all the time

Just this week, when an issue arose at work, I worried. When I was feeling overwhelmed with things to do to finish the book, I worried. When the cough I’ve had for 5 weeks wasn’t going away, I worried. Each time, I told myself:

Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.

I knew that I didn’t need worry. I needed action. So I organized a response to the issue at work and focused on it all week. I mapped out all the remaining book tasks and asked for help for those things I didn’t know how to do. I went to see my doctor.

I was happier. And I’ll be sure to listen to my friend’s advice more often.

Working out loud when you don’t want to be visible

Are you visible?When I talk about working out loud, some people will give voice to an objection I suspect is quite common:

“Thanks, but I just don’t want to be visible.”

They’re surprised when I tell them they can still work in a way that’s open, generous, and connected – and realize many of the benefits resulting from that – without ever posting a blog or tweet.

Here’s how.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Making your work visible is just one of the five elements of working out loud. The others – relationships, generosity, a focus on getting better, and purpose – can often be more important depending on your goal.

A few months ago, I wrote about how my 9 year daughter approaches problems. She doesn’t post anything online related to what she’s doing, but she expects that others have done so already. So her first step in achieving a goal – solving a Rubik’s cube, perfecting her golf swing, improving at cello – is to look online for information that can help her. Then she’ll make note of who published that content and look for other things they contributed.

In that process, she’s building a network and getting better without ever posting anything herself. Then, in person, she exchanges information with classmates and teachers interested in her goal so she can improve even more, discovering things she hadn’t found herself. If my daughter did post things online, if she was more visible, she would further increase her chances of finding useful people and knowledge. But she gets plenty of benefits even without doing so.

Celebrating the “Invisibles”

InvisiblesThere’s an entire book written on Invisibles. (HT to Omar Reece for pointing this out.) It makes the point that people in certain jobs such as anesthesiology and structural engineering are invisible when they do their jobs perfectly and “they’re fine with remaining anonymous.” Here’s an excerpt from the book’s website:

“What has been lost amid the noise of self-promotion today is that not everyone can, or should, or even wants to be in the spotlight. This inspiring and illuminating book shows that recognition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and invisibility can be viewed as a mark of honor and a source of a truly rich life.”

The book makes an important point that “hidden professionals can reap deep fulfillment by relishing the challenges their work presents.” You’t needn’t seek recognition to like your job.

How even a private person can work out loud

Yet while it’s natural that everyone won’t seek the spotlight, being anonymous and invisible is an unhealthy extreme. There is another alternative.

When you work out loud, your goal isn’t to promote yourself or to be visible to as many people as possible. It’s to be visible to the right people so you can become more effective and discover other possibilities.

The anesthesiologists and structural engineers don’t need to be popular or engage a big audience. But I certainly hope they’re not anonymous. I hope they work out loud at least as much as 9 year olds do, seeking to become better at what they do and actively looking for other experts in their field to learn from them.

A woman in one of our early working out loud circles considered herself a “lurker.” She didn’t want to be visible. Yet after a few weeks she said, “thinking about people and networks and just simple possibilities in a different way is already making me more open at and about work.”

She may still limit her use of the Internet to just looking for information. She may limit her exchange of ideas to in-person talks over coffee. But now she’ll be “open at and about work.” She’s realized that private and open needn’t be opposites, and that mental shift alone will greatly increase her chances of reaching her goals.

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaA month ago, I saw an extraordinary post about a way to change your air travel experience, and it included a line I kept thinking about:

“Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile.”

That image stuck with me. Imagine, no striving or manufactured complications. No irritation at the foibles of others, at the inhumane systems, or at the unpredictable nature of things. You could still travel far but you could be, well, cool about it.

I began thinking: That’s what I want my life to be like! 

3 quotes in my office that are all from the same book

As the universe would have it, around that time I’d just finished reading a book a dear friend had given me for my birthday called Cathedral of the Wild. It’s written by Boyd Varty and it’s about the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. The reserve is about the size of Switzerland and the Varty family has gradually returned it to its natural state over the last 40 years.

The book is a memoir filled with stories of the people and animals at Londolozi. But it’s also about Boyd’s internal struggles and personal growth, and those are the lines from the book I remembered. When I’d finished reading, I did something I never do: I printed out three quotes and taped them to my office desk.

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”

 

“It’s only got the power I give it.”

 

“Tsama hansie. Put down all you have been carrying.”

Operating instructions for a right life

In many ways, Lonodolozi was idyllic, a restored garden of Eden. But a years-long investor lawsuit related to one of the family’s ambitious projects made it feel like like their work and dreams were unraveling. Worse, the close-knit family started to come apart too.

The first quote was from a spiritual master in an Indian ashram where Boyd went seeking advice. The second was from his father speaking in reaction to the many calls from lawyers. The last was what the local Shangaan people would tell Boyd when he was a boy when he was tired after a long day.

They could be dismissed as just quotes, and even Boyd remembers snarling about the pithy wisdom from the ashram master. “I could have gotten that from a fortune cookie.” But by the end of the book, at the ripe old age of 29, Boyd sees the wisdom underlying these quotes as “the only operating instructions we will ever need for a right life.”

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

Years ago I would have dismissed ideas like these as New Age fluff, but that was simply the result of ignorance and a closed mind. Now, I take comfort in life’s operating instructions every day.

When I’m trying to do good work and people, management systems, or bad luck deal me a setback, I think Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome. All I can do is to persevere doing what I think is right.

When a person acts in a way that makes me angry or upset, I think It’s only got the power I give it. Mostly, my reactions to the barbs of everyday life are bigger problems than the barbs themselves. I need to recognize an issue without making it bigger than it is.

When I’m finished working, I think Put down all you have been carrying. There are times to focus on what needs to be done and there are times to tsama hansie - to restore, recharge, and just enjoy the moment.

Life, like airports, can be nasty and brutish. Or you can choose how you approach things and utterly change the experience.

How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks

My first Happiness Resolutions chartJust six weeks. I’m still amazed.

I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade – researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.

Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.

Happiness science

How of HappinessThere’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.

The difference is in behavior – what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

How to change the 40%

The Happiness ProjectThis May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits – what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.

“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”

My Happiness Project

This week's Happiness Resolutions chartI had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.

I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:

Feeling good

  • Friends/family – Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
  • 6-second hugs – Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.

Feeling bad

  • No alcohol – Not abstinence but balance.
  • No anger – Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
  • Admin – Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
  • Honest Day’s Work – Putting in a solid effort at work.
  • No negative talk – Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
  • No phone overuse – Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.

Feeling right

Atmosphere of growth

  • Book/Circles – Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
  • Yoga/gym – Training my body to be healthier.
  • Meditation – Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.

Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.

The results 

Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.

What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.

The thing I learned was this: You shouldn’t wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.

 

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.