Month: January 2011

Lessons from 2010: Maximal joy, minimal hoo-ha

still life with note: "find the thing you love to do and do the shit out of it"

I have been thinking a lot about love and friction, only not in the way your mind maybe-perhaps just jumped to, if you are like me and we are both, like, 12.

I have been thinking about love in terms of what I love, and whom I love, and how those two things intersect. For example, I love figuring stuff out, reading and taking in and mulling over and hashing out and finally, getting some semblance of a clue. I can do all of these things on my own; I must do quite a bit of it on my own. Maybe the ratio changes as one gets older and, presumably, wiser, but for now, I’d reckon I spend three to four times as much time taking in and hashing out and so forth as I do actually gaining semblances of clues, much less putting them out there.

But while the part that I’m actually sharing with others, the “talking” here, in posts, and in the comments, and in social media, as well as the talking-for-real one-on-one, in groups, during talks, takes up perhaps a smaller amount of time, it delivers a disproportionately large part of the thrill. Which makes sense: We are social beings! We like being around each other! Wherever two or three are gathered! And so on.

So the answer to love seems pretty straightforward: figure out what it is you really and truly love, and move toward it. Do more of it, be around more of the people who facilitate it for you. Relentlessly hew to your love, and ignore that other stuff, or just deal and dispense with it as quickly as possible.1

Friction is more complex. More obviously complex, anyway.

For our purposes here, “friction” is what stops you, or slows you, what creates drag. And the tricky thing is that you don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because some of the friction is good for you, and arguably necessary: who learns from easy? You may like easy; I certainly do.

Trickiest of all is that friction can be fun, in the right amounts (cf. that thing our 12-year-old minds immediately went to). The right amount of push-back in a conversation is thrilling, even (or especially) when it borders on maddening. Worthy opponent, and all that. Ditto solo problem-solving and, jeez, is it just me, or is all of this tinged with innuendo today? Well, you get my point. (Point? Really? Argh!)

In the wrong amounts, of course, friction is dreadful, even deadly. Too much friction will grind you to a nub. For me, advertising shifted from the good, learning friction to the bad, grinding kind. So did acting. So did, I’m ashamed to say, more than one long-term relationship.

Most pertinently to me, so did the confluence of friction-filled endeavors that led to my Crohn’s onset. First, because since my collapse in September of 2002, I can no longer count on Powering Though Shit as a modus operandi.2 Second, because that sucker crept up on me, and while I was, or thought I was, moving toward love. I wasn’t in advertising; I was acting, and in a great play! I wasn’t in an unfulfilling marriage; I was in a wildly passionate relationship!

Yeah, I know. Nothing like a good, clear view from the outside. Or hindsight.

What about the present, though? Because like it or not, that’s where we’re all doomed to live, no matter how much we look back wistfully or project ourselves into the future.

My suspicion is that the clearer one gets about love, what love means to one, what one cares about more than one’s own small human self, the simpler it becomes to discern that line where useful friction shifts into fruitless grinding.

My other suspicion is that for those of us who are good at kidding ourselves about what love is, who are good at “keeping things vague,” as my old Method acting teacher used to say, the very most useful tool of all is the truth. Relentless truth. Gentle truth. Simple truth. The truth at the core of the Method: “Where am I right now?”

  • I am at a party, late at night, having fun.

The first two items are facts; the last is a state of being, or an assumption based on the first two items. Provided we’re playing what we’d call in the Method class a “simple” scene, drama or comedy with a clear who/what/where, as opposed to the kind where there’s a lot of dramaturgy required before you can make heads or tails of it, we start with these tangibles. And we challenge the assumptions.

  • I am at a party, late at night. It is loud, and I am unable to hear the person next to me without him shouting and me straining to listen. I was up early this morning and up late the night before. I am tired. My attention is straying elsewhere, mostly to thoughts of quiet and sleep.

So I am not in a party, late at night, having fun. Maybe I was having fun. Maybe I am supposed to be having fun. But now, at best, I am having “fun”.

This may sound ridiculously obvious: You’re at a party and you’re tired and not having fun? Leave, dumbass! Who’s keeping you there? And who needs an exercise for this?

Well, maybe you do not. In certain situations, more and more of them, thankfully, I do not. More and more I am awake and attuned to my real feelings, and more and more I am inclined to act on them. Still, I have blind spots, both unavoidable, the ones I don’t know about yet, and willful, the ones I’m still, for whatever reason, unwilling to give up. I power through, I blip over, I look away out of fear or politeness (which one could argue is a form of fear).

One big truth at the end of last year was that the way I was working was not working. After a year of both musing and actual, physical testing, I think it comes down to this: I had stopped being truthful about what it was I loved, i.e., the thing I care about more than my own, small human self, and stopped being careful about managing friction, i.e. the physical realities that made it possible to pursue it. Now I don’t have to just guess whether MORE ROOM makes for a happier, healthier, more productive and loving Colleen; I know it.

I know I need a certain number of hours of sleep per night and the right kind of food and enough exercise.

I know I need a ridiculous amount (to some) of time spent alone, and in a quiet, nurturing environment.

I know that doing the shit out of something is fine, but that it may involve equal parts pursuing the something and lounging on the bed or in the bath, reading, and not just reading books that will obviously move me toward my goals, but engrossing novels, vivid memoirs, enchanting graphic novels.

I know that it is as important for me to take an hour to walk as it is three to write. It is as important for me to take three hours to shop for real food and prepare it as it is to work on my PowerPoint deck.

Those 16 non-working hours in a day aren’t for squeezing more stuff into; they’re not even for making the eight working hours work better, although you can use them for that, which I confess is largely why I started turning my attention to them. They’re for living. Living! Who knew?

My (slightly) older but infinitely wiser friends Hiro and my First-Shrink-Slash-Astrologer both advocate more being, less doing. In my heart, I know they are right; I also know that to tell a doer to Just Stop Doing It is like telling snow not to fall or water not to move downstream. For the time being, then, for 2011 and beyond, I will continue to look at different kinds of doing. Switching doings. Working, yes, working, on further reducing drag.

Finding ways to discern and describe what it is I love in real terms. Finding ways to reduce drag on my movements toward them.

With joy! Towards love! And as much as possible, out in the open, where it might be seen and made use of. But working.

For now the “being” will have to take the form of “being okay with that.”


1It may take a while to discover exactly what it is that you love, but there are tools for that: The Artist’s Way is a good start for those who self-identify as creative; plenty of tools and exercises for excavating your truest, purest self, for me, the part that is still 10, before my dreams started bumping up against the world’s expectations. Until I was 10, I was an artist, I didn’t have to think about whether I was, or what it meant, or whether I was a good one, or whether (and this is a big one) it was practical or not. I just was.

2This does not mean I have not tried; oh, me, how I’ve tried! Each time, a little less successfully. I tire astonishingly quickly now compared to the rate I did during my 20s and 30s, or even my mid-40s, and my bounce-back rate gets slower and slower.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #36

basset hound at table with bunting on Art of Non-Conformity book tour by Eugene


An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffantabulous things I find stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every damned Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker, and kindred spirit!

Good tips woven through lovely stories on how to look better in pictures. [delicious-ed]

An inspiring, honest account of an extraordinary year. [Google Reader-ed]

Sweet illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton, art-directed for the excellent GOOD magazine by Keith Scharwath (fab designer and other half of the illustrious L.A./design power couple that includes @gelatobaby) and all about Haiti? That, my friends, is a trifecta! At least! [Facebook-ed]

Interesting, engrossing documentary on the beginnings of computing at IBM. Which, when you consider that it was Errol Morris who was hired to make it, makes sense. [YouTube-liked, via Daring Fireball]


P.S. I will shut up about the not-quite-spanking-new archives I made recently. Just not quite yet.

Photo by Eugene, via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

iPhone addy hack for introverts [video]

[watch “iPhone addy hack for introverts” on YouTube; 1:35 minutes]

This is so dirt-simple and so effective it will blow your mind. And you don’t even have to watch the video, although it’s kind of a cute one, complete with A SURPRISE PLOT TWIST, so maybe you might want to.

Here’s the deal: many, many introverts hate answering the phone. Hell, as far as I can tell, there are a fair number of extraverts who hate answering the phone. The phone sucks! Except when the phone is awesome, like when it hooks you up with your fave people who cheer you up and make your life nicer and better for five minutes.

So what you do is, dirt-simple, remember?, assign a nice photo to each person you need or want to talk to on your smartphone. Er, iPhone, I’m pretty sure you can do this with any phone that has a camera, but I’m Apple-centric and what do I know from other telephonic devices? Nothing, that’s what.

Bonus-extra ridiculous-but-useful tip: if there is someone you really, really do not want to talk to but must for some reason, name them something cute in your address book (“Rainbows and Flowers!” “Ice Cream and Doilies!”), pick an adorable picture of bounding puppies or bunnies in cups, and you will answer every stupid, hateful call with a secret smile on your face. Or, you know, just smile as you watch them go into voicemail.


People in this video (besides me): Heidi Miller (social media/self-promo junkie); Jodi Womack (women’s business networker extraordinaire)

And we’re back in 5…4…3…

I officially ended 13 months of Self-Imposed Sabbatical this past weekend, in rather a hootenanny-ish way, ergo my delay in actually getting something posted today. I’ll write much more about the event, about the sabbatical, about the lessons I took from them and the ideas that have begun coursing through me again largely because of them, but for now, just a few quick top line observations:

It’s not just you. If there is one thing I learned over this past year in general, over this past weekend in particular, even, it’s that everyone is confused and everyone is learning and everyone is terrified and everyone is cautiously/secretly hopeful (if only spasmodically) and everyone thinks it’s just them, and they’d better shut up and keep their head down and try to look normal, or spout some party line hoo-ha about Tough Times. It’s not just them, er, you. It’s everyone. It’s me, and pretty much everyone I’ve engaged in conversation on the topic, a rather wide swath of humanity. (Note: I’ve been taking the bus more recently.)

I am not sure how much of this we can blame on the outrageously sped-up change cycles we’re enjoying these days and how much is just part and parcel of the human condition. What I do know is that if you can take a little risk to let down your guard and float it out there, you’re likely to find someone to help you carry your load. Or at least commiserate over the size of it.

There is no “done.” You will doubtless find this hilarious, but in my naivete I thought of this sabbatical thing as I did muffin-baking: throw a bunch of stuff together in a bowl, add this or that until it tastes pretty good in its raw form, stick it in a medium oven and 35 minutes, or 53 weeks, later, bing! Muffins!

It is not like that at all. In fact, it resembles quite uncannily what I remembered to be the drawing on the cover of The Artist’s Way, an endlessly winding road carved into the side of a mountain, where at every level the view was somehow different, yet somehow familiar. Only it’s not the cover of The Artist’s Way; it’s some other idea of a mountain I’d heard of or dreamt of from somewhere else. Maybe it was “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

So there you go: no “done.” Just give that up. (And if you don’t believe me and several millenia of philosophical teachings, check this out. That’s business modeling, baby, no squishy woowoo stuff there.)

The soft things may be the most necessary. This is not the case for you if you are a big lounger on chaises longues, but if you are, you’re not reading this anyway, you’re lounging on a chaise. I hit seven out of ten goals for this past year. (My years now run from mid-February to mid-February, but let’s just say it’s unlikely I’ll publish three books in a fortnight and call it a day, shall we?) All seven were “soft” goals, reading more books, connecting more often with friends, eating right, exercising adequately. That sort of thing. My three token Masters-of-the-Universe goals all tanked. Yet I’ve probably made more progress this one year than I have in the past five or six put together, if we’re going to call “living happily in one’s own skin” a worthy ambition. And I do. And if you don’t, well, I wish you well, but we’re probably going to be spending even less time together in the future. I’m turning 50 this year; I don’t have as much dithering time as I once did.

And finally?

It’s good to be back.


Image by stevendepolo via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #35

a big white room with chairs set up in one corner

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffantabulous things I find stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every damned Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker, and kindred spirit!

A small but tasty morsel on overcoming “demand resistance,” aka “stuckness.” The reframing question is gobsmackingly simple, wherein lies its genius. [delicious-ed]

For some reason, I’ve been getting asked a lot recently about what podcasts I like (besides Adam Carolla‘s and Colin Marshall‘s, both of whom I’ve previously pimped.) So I was pretty psyched to come across this list from my friend, Marisa: some excellent prospects, here, and anything that makes house cleaning more fun, right? [Google Reader-ed]

If you liked this month’s newsletter and you have any trace of true nerd in you, you’ll love this piece by Merlin Mann on not shipping crap. [Facebook]

The only thing better than writer/gelato-eater/Angeleno-stroller Alissa Walker‘s inspiring story of creating the career she wanted for herself is the delightful way in which she tells it. If you’re not a fan of video, don’t let the length deter you: the actual talk is just 10 minutes, the rest is Q&A. But it’s all really, really good! [Stumbled]


P.S. Were you around last Friday? Did I mention there are now easily-accessible archives for this site? Yes? Well, I’ll probably keep on doing that for awhile. Because it’s a big, fat, hairy deal ’round these here parts.

Photo by Brad Coy, via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Making gatherings better [video]

[Watch “Helpful Networking Thingy” on YouTube; 03:12 minutes]

We had a great time at last week’s Biznik event at Jerry’s Deli. We pretty much always do, but this time, we introduced a new, fun, sharing-kinda thing that really reinvigorated everyone, provided interesting things to talk about and gave each of us insight not only into each other, but some ways we might improve our lives and businesses moving forward.

I describe one of the tools I used in the video above. Basically, it comes down to this:

  1. Have each attendee to your gathering come with a problem or question they’d like to crowdsource.
  2. Provide some means for them to write the question and collect answers, we used 8.5×11″ sheets and markers, and laid them out on a table. I rolled out some kraft paper underneath it all so I could tape the sheets neatly. You could also put giant sheets up on the wall, or use a big whiteboard and take pictures after.

If you’re the organizer, it’s helpful to seed things with a question or two, or press a willing friend to ask one as well. It will help people get over their initial shyness with the new idea.

If you were one of the attendees and happen to be reading this, please feel free to leave your thoughts about how this worked in the comments.

If you’ve done something like this and achieved great success with getting people to loosen up right away and share, I’d love to hear your methods.

Oh, and if you’re an entrepreneur in the Los Angeles area, I’d love to meet you at an upcoming event. There’s one on February 16th; sign up for Biznik (free!), then you can RSVP to the event.



The value of the right questions, Part 1

girl with her moleskine

moleskine, the stylish reporter's choice

I’ve done a handful of interviews for the presentation I’m giving later this week, which has renewed my appreciation for the skill involved in asking the right questions.

My previous experience with this valuable journalistic skill has been minimal, but similarly instructive. It took an shockingly long time to draft a set of questions for Seth Godin that would be useful (to my readers) and worthy (of Seth’s time) for my leg of the Linchpin “book tour” last year. You wonder why those legendary Playboy or Rolling Stone interviews from Back in the Day are so good? Or, for that matter, why Colin Marshall and Jesse Thorn have such compulsively listen-able podcasts today?1

It’s the questions, stupid.

Good questions make for interesting answers, and interesting answers get you thinking about all kinds of questions you suddenly want to ask yourself. Good questions wake you up to the world around you, and get you reengaged with life. It’s a huge gift to be interviewed by a smart, generous, curious interviewer. First, and foremost, you have a blast. A conversation all about the things that interest you, with someone who is (purportedly, anyway) interested in how you came to be that way? What’s not to love?

But what’s really wonderful about a great interview, an interview designed to liberate valuable information from your skull for the purposes of sharing it with other people who might then learn from it, is that it forces you to focus, but frees you to do it. You could wander off into the poppy fields, and I do, frequently, but there’s that nice interviewer, ready to lead you back to safety. Or on to a more interesting topic. Or whatever. Someone else does all of that hacking-a-path-through-the-jungle stuff. Someone else keeps an eye on the map and the compass, and allows you to wander around, commenting on this or that fascinating sight, and the eight things it makes you think about, in glorious freedom. Rather than facing a blank page, which I realize is my main job as a writer, but which absolutely gets tiring at times, someone gives you some structure, some prompts: What about this? And this? And this other thing?

It’s such a valuable thing for showing you parts of yourself you might not otherwise see and training you to think in a way you might not ordinarily think that if people are not lining up to interview you, I’d look for ways to give yourself this gift. The Proust Questionnaire is a great place to start: not only has it withstood the test of time, but you can compare your answers (afterwards, please!) to a world thinker so great, they ended up naming the damned thing after him.

My friend Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) is terrific at posing thought-starters. Check out her question frameworks for coming up with resolutions that will be more satisfying to pursue, making better decisions, keeping your temper. I also enjoy reading the interviews Gretchen does with people she’s interested in. Like the Proust Questionnaire, the questions remain consistent, so you could certainly use them to do your own (unpublished) Gretchen Rubin Happiness interview.

Whatever your means, it might be useful to start turning your attention to good questions, what makes them, where to find them, rather than focus quite so much on tracking down answers. Not that there isn’t still a place for plain, old information (God Bless Wikipedia, and long may it reign!), but the knowledge that you piece together as the result of good questions is the information that really keeps on giving.

It’s a now-hackneyed tradition to end a blog post or seed one’s Facebook wall or cop out on meaningful Twitter contribution by asking a question. Too bad, because asking good questions is not just a way to gain eyeballs or get a break from the relentless feeding of the beast or incite the troops to (heaven help us) “join the conversation,” but to stimulate actual, creative thought.

Still, this is a post about questions, so I will scatter a few about on my way out the door, mostly as fodder for you to think about as you move through your day. (Although the comments are, of course, open, they’re even unmoderated again, assuming you’ve previously proven yourself to be a friendly nation.)

  • Where is the last place you (unhappily) found yourself that felt so familiar, you were finally moved to take action?
  • What is your favorite color? Was it always? When did it change? Where is it in your life right now?
  • Replace “color” (above) with “book,” “song,” “teacher,” “friend,” or “food.”
  • What five songs make you the happiest when you hear them? Have you learned the words to them?
  • What song could you sing right now in its entirety? Do you like this song?
  • What is your greatest fear? How are you living with it (or not)?


* * *

COMING UP WEDNESDAY: A fun question-and-answer exercise to lively up your next gathering. You’re subscribed, right?

* * *

Speaking of someone who knows how to ask the right questions, my longtime blogging pal, Marilyn, did a really challenging one with me that she’s shared on her new site, La Salonniere, today. I’m especially thrilled because I love all the previous interviews so much: between her eclectic interests and her devotion to learning how things work, she is one amazing interviewer!

* * *

1In the case of the live interviewer, it’s all about the ability to improvise. Jesse probably has the edge here, improv fanatic that he is, although that could be my bias toward comedic presentation. I’m also mad for Adam Carolla, whose podcast was killer out of the gate. Nothing that 20 years of assiduous practice on terrestrial radio and crappy comedy stages can’t buy you.

Image by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.