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What makes a good driving question for life?

If you were only allowed to ask one question of yourself to move you into action each morning, what one question would have the greatest chance of creating the best life for you?

In a recent Get-it-Done Guy episode, I explored the nature of using driving questions to shape your life. My episodes are often created from events in my own life. As many of you know, several years ago I did a three year experiment in Living an Extraordinary Life which later turned into a TEDx talk, a webinar, and a series of talks. You can even download an MP3 of the Living an Extraordinary Life webinar.

The driving questions episode came from my decision (largely made unconsciously and revealed to me by my unconscious mind in the late afternoon of June 17, 2014) to re-start the Experiment discussed in the presentation. In short, what driving questions drive an extraordinary life?

Here are some candidate questions so far:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • Who do I want to hang out with?
  • Who do I want to serve?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • What do I want to build?
  • What would I do if I were on vacation?
  • Who are the people I want to become?

These are all good questions to ask as part of a periodic life review. That’s very different from the way I’m proposing to use them, however. The proposal on the table is that one of these questions–or some other question entirely–can act as a daily launching pad for life. Which question is the one that will serve best as a daily launching pad? They propel you in a very different direction, depending on which is answered.

Is the very concept of work doomed?

I just read an excellent article on XConomy by Wade Roush in which he asks the question: is technology destroying the very basis of our economy to offer employment? And assuming it is (as a thought experiment), what might we do to stop it?

First, read the article. Otherwise, my commentary won’t make much sense.

First of all, I found it fascinating that Finland and Sweden have lower taxes than the US, despite having much better social benefits. “What!?!?!?” you cry, “lower taxes? But they’re inefficient, evil socialists! It destroys the prevailing Capitalism is Best Ever narrative to say such a thing!!!”

Well, let’s take a look. My state tax is 6.25%, my Federal taxes are 33%, and my FICA taxes are 14%. Add those together and we discover that I’m paying 53% in taxes, which is about 18% MORE1 than the 45% tax rate Wade quotes for Finland and Sweden.” The big difference is that my tax dollars go mainly to private defense contractors, private insurance companies, and other private providers of services hired by the government.

What about motivation?

Wade correctly points out that such welfare states have a problem motivating people to work. But is this a problem? If the promise of industrialization is coming true—to wit, that technology will free us to pursue things that are personally meaningful rather than productive—then decreased motivation to work doesn’t seem like a huge problem.

Perhaps what we need to do is make work either voluntary, or a phase of life (say, ages 25-40), after which you can continue to work if you enjoy it and are challenged by it, otherwise you must go out and create artwork.

Warren Buffett hasn’t needed to work in any economic sense during my entire lifetime (and then some!). But he has done so, and even took on the stressful job of running Solomon Brothers. Why? Not because the money was the big incentive, but because challenge and meaning, and rescuing an institution was important to him.

This implied theory that people’s only motivation is money continues to mystify me in an age where the #1 complaint people have about their jobs is that their jobs are meaningless, paper-pushing wastes of time that are nothing more than an excuse for a paycheck.

Do any of Wade’s solutions work?

I think Wade’s option #8 is really the only viable one. Solutions like “grow our way out of it” don’t solve the underlying systemic problem. First of all, you can’t grow everything fast enough forever, so you end up in the same situation somewhere down the line. Secondly, those solutions still cling to the notion that the only legitimate way to get paid is by doing valuable work. But if the fundamental premise we’re up against is that machines are devaluing the work rapidly, then any solution that starts with the assumption that there’s enough valuable work for everyone is doomed to fail.

As for retraining, I just have to laugh. People already accumulate a lifetime’s worth of debt for their first education that will let them spend a decade to advance to a solid, mid-level, middle-class job. While I hear this meme tossed around a lot, I challenge anyone who claims it’s possible to quit their job and retrain in another unrelated job that gives them the equivalent income. (Must be unrelated because again, the premise is that the first job has been rendered economically less vaulable by technology. Thus, the replacement job must be substantially different.)

What do you think? If technology really has made a great many humans redundant for the first time in history, we’re in uncharted waters. Where do we go from here? Anywhere we want to. Where do we want to go from here?

  1. The math is a bit weird here. What I mean is that if I make $100 in the US, I pay 53% tax, leaving $47. Someone from Finland pays 45% tax, leaving $55. That’s 17.78% more than the Fins. Actually, to do this correctly would require looking at the different tax brackets and drawing a big graph of income ranges, etc. At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to argue that most middle class people pay much lower taxes in the U.S. If you factor in their need to pay for the services that Finland and Sweden provide nationally (e.g. health insurance, mortgage insurance, maternity leave, etc.), Americans definitely have lower take home pay to spend on non-essentials. 

Do we control our own outcomes?

A friend thought it was funny that I’m an executive and life coach who believe we have limited ability to affect our own outcomes. It would be more accurate to say I believe we have limited ability to predict the effects of our actions on our outcomes. What we do makes a difference, but we can rarely tell what it will be in advance.

Our gut is lousy at understanding a complex world. Otherwise, we would have had technology 90,000 years ago. Instead, we needed to develop science and data and measurement to know how small parts of the world really work. Most of what we believe about life (probably 99.9999999999%) has never been really tested.

Yes, our actions affect the world, sometimes in ways that benefit us. And nevertheless, the power of the surrounding system structure far dominates outcomes. I attended a conference about the analysis of social networks. The conclusions are striking: your position a social graph predicts your outcomes far more than your personal contribution. But you can’t know where you are in a social graph without close tracking and analysis, so we’ve only known this rigorously in the last few years. And even now, it’s probably better that we not know it.

Your Attitude Matters

Our beliefs do affect our internal experience of life and success. So find success principles that you want to believe. Just keep in mind that believing for the sake of feeling good is very different from believing to get results. “The Secret” has been shown in several studies to actually lower your chances of getting what you want. (Read books by Richard Wiseman for details.) But it’s an enormously comforting belief system, and many people keep it.

While I don’t necessarily believe hard work produces consistent results, I do believe that apathy and lack of action produces poor results. If someone believes their individual actions make little difference (which may be true), they might stop working under the logic that it doesn’t matter anyway. That lack of movement will guarantee failure. But if they believe they can have an effect, they’ll stay moving, and might encounter luck along the way.

(I know someone who has had a particular belief system about what leads to success. He is 80 years old now, with 50+ years of direct personal experience that his belief system has never produced the results he believes, but he’s still buying those lottery tickets because “this time, it’ll pay off.” If he’d ever recognized the reality of his situation, the lottery system would be bankrupt.)

So How do You Succeed?

My theory is that if you want success (financial, achievement, significance to others, legacy), the steps most likely to get you there are:

  1. Do something you enjoy. You’ll be engaged, creative, and optimistic—all traits shown to be correlated with spotting opportunity.
  2. Develop a habit of spotting opportunity. Even if you don’t jump on it, notice the possibilities each situation provides for you to further your success in whatever areas you desire.
  3. Capture the upside. Pursuing a good idea won’t get you success unless you’re the one who benefits from the idea. Make sure the opportunities you spot give you the chance to benefit if the opportunity comes to pass.
  4. Limit your downside. You want to follow Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advice from his book Antifragility: limit your downside, expose yourself to unlimited upside, and be prepared to capture the upside.
  5. Build strong relationships. Build cross-disciplinary, strong relationships. Luck often arrives in the form of people, opportunity, and/or the ability to mobilize a group quickly. Having strong, trusted relationships in place increases your ability to move when opportunity presents itself.

Living an Extraordinary Life

Want an intriguing program to listen to this weekend?

I do what I do is because I’m deeply committed to helping people live their full potential, especially when they have world-changing dreams. My background in business, entrepreneurship, and cognitive psychology gives me a unique set of skills for helping people whose personal and organizational lives are deeply entertwined.

One of my favorite clients started our work together saying, “my life is quite good. I have a well-paying job that I enjoy, colleauges who support me, and a great circle of friends.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked him. 

He responded, “Because, I don’t want a good life. I want an extraordinary life.”

I was floored. That led to shiftng my emphasis from clients’ businesses to addressing their businesses and their lives.

Many years later, in 2012, I gave a TEDx presentation called Living an Extraordinary Life, documenting a 3-year experiment in living outside my bounds. Technical glitches made the video unusable, but I presented an expanded version of the same presentation with slides for the Harvard Business School Association webinar series a few months ago.

Living an Extraordinary Life

I’ve made the audio, the slides, and a synchronized version of the two available and want to offer it to my community. I’d love your thoughts and reactions.

Note that the MP3 file is tagged as an audiobook and can thus be listened to at 1.5x or 2x on an iPhone/iPod.

Do The Experiment With Me

I’ll be starting my Experiment again, and am offering it as a year-long coaching program to build a supportive community for others who want to join me. If you would like an invitation to the program, here’s how it works:

  1. Listen to the program and make sure it resonates with you.
  2. Contact me via the form on the web page to arrange a discussion.
  3. We’ll meet to explore your needs, what you have to offer, and find out whether you’re right for the program.
  4. If so, I’ll send along an invitation once the program and details have been finalized.


Your Framing Changes the World

The way we frame things mentally determines how powerfully we’ll be able to handle them.

I auditioned for Spamalot at a local theater last night. After checking in, they informed me that I was in the very last audition slot. That gave me the “opportunity” to listen to my competition as they sang their audition songs. One by one. While I waited with growing trepidation on the cold, unforgiving wooden bench outside. Trying very hard to smile. (It was an acting audition, after all.)

Each person came out complaining apologetically. “When I performed that aria at Madison Square Garden, I hit the high C with so much more resonance.” Or, “gosh, I forgot all the words, so I just improvised new, rhyming lyrics riffing off of a 13th century Olde English translation of the Song of Solomon.” By the time it was my turn, I was a nervous wreck.

But then, some part of my brain found The Answer. As I stepped through the curtains into the auditorium, the thought came to me: “Forget auditioning. Perform. You have two awesome minutes on stage. Give the audience your absolute best!”

One Thought Changes Everything

Suddenly my attitude changed completely. When it’s time to step on stage, there’s no time for practice or judgment. It’s commitment time. By framing this as a performance, rather than an audition, my nerves vanished. I was suddenly alert and happy (I love performing, after all).

I walked confidently to the pianist, gave him my sheet music, and proceeded to sing my song confidently, dramatically, and with full attention on the small audience that just happened to be the directoral staff for the show.

Nothing about the situation changed except my thinking. An “audition” was scary. A “performance” was exhilarating. The right thinking led to a mental and physical state that let me give my all. Last time, I “auditioned,” was a nervous wreck, and didn’t get the part. This time, I “performed,” gave it my all, and had a great time. My all still may not be good enough to get the part, but at least I had fun performing, which I love.

I tried this again during the dance audition. We got to dance twice. The first time, I was a total wreck. You’ve heard of two left feet? I have seven left feet. And they’re all superglued together. It isn’t pretty. But right before the second dance, I thought to myself, “this is performance, not audition! You may suck, but give the audience the best you have to give.” With that change of attitude, I remembered the entire routine and made it through with all the grace and artistry I could bring to the combination.

We Can Choose Our Frames

How you think about situations before you deal with them will affect the options you find, the actions you’ll take, and how resourceful your mental state will be when you start to deal with them.

Next time you find yourself nervous, sad, angry, apprehensive, or anxious, try a new framing.

If you’re going in to a “critical negotiation,” try a “new, mutually profitable relationship” instead. You’ll stop concentrating on the risk and instead you’ll start finding ways you can both benefit from the relationship.

If you’re on a “failing project,” start thinking about “a chance to rescue something good.” You just may find a way to use what you’ve learned and built in a new way that makes the project successful.

If you’re dealing with an “obnoxious, unreasonable person,” try connecting with “a good-hearted person who has really poor social skills.” Seriously. You’ll find your attitude changes.

Try explicitly reframing stressful situations. Are you fooling yourself? Maybe. But maybe you’ll fool yourself right into finding better, more resourceful ways to handle your challenges.

In Praise of the Corporation

I’m in awe. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of big corporations. I think they often (but not always) dehumanize the people who work there. They can ruin communities in the name of efficient and cost-cutting, and they distribute wealth in truly bizarre ways. But… But… They’re amazing! Not just a little amazing; they’re frickin’ mind-blowing amazing!

Today I was getting lunch at Subway and the regional manager was there helping them tune up their processes so they can deliver the same quality as measured by customer feedback as several thousand other franchises. Not only do they do it today but they will do it every day going forward, rain or shine.

Have you ever thought about that? How incredible it is? There’s never before been a civilization that could do that on such a scale once, much less thousands of times. And we take it for granted that any large company will be able to scale like that.

And the things we do… Building the ancient pyramids is considered a Wonder of the Ancient World. We build buildings that are a thousand times more complex and sophisticated, on a regular basis. We rarely even ask “is a half-mile high building feasible?” Of course it is. We’ll find a way to do it; the limitation we focus on is funding. We know we can master the technological challenges. We know we can get the supplies made to spec. We know that we can coordinate the hundreds or thousands of people it will take to pull it together. And that’s unprecedented in human history.

The modern corporation has taught us to create systems larger than any one person could ever create. It has taught us to create flows of materials and information that span the globe, enabling us to coordinate people and projects on a level that can change the whole planet. And most astonishing, these organizations keep working even though the people who comprise them come and go. Popular business mythology aside, our ability to create and share process has made our achievements largely independent of any single person. The skills and abilities reside in the structure of the systems as much as (or more than) the individuals.

Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll be back to battling the not-so-nice parts of business. But today, I celebrate the corporation, an invention that has raised the human race to levels of accomplishment we have never before dreamt of. Savour it. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. Because it has enabled you to live in the most extraordinary time ever in human history.

The downside of personal branding

Personal branding is all the rage, but it has its hidden downsides as well. As I prepare to give my Living an Extraordinary Life presentation for Harvard Business School’s alumni webinar series, I am realizing that personal branding can become an impediment as well as a benefit. Many of my mid-career friends have discovered that today’s expertise can be tomorrow’s problem. Here’s how.

read more…

Is content re-use necessary?

Help me understand. The Associated Press won a court battle recently, in which the court ruled that an aggregation service had violated “fair use” under copyright law by reprinting AP content without sharing profits.

My reaction is mixed. Only … no, it isn’t. As a content creator myself, I understand the level of thought, care, time, and effort it takes to produce quality content. The idea that someone can take the content I’ve worked very hard on, and reprint it for free makes no sense to me.

Yet people are crying that this will have a “chilling” effect on online innovation. Help me understand. What is this “chilling” effect? I don’t at all understand how online innovation and “you get to use my hard work for free” are related, other than by the desire of entrepreneurs to use my hard work for free. There’s a word for that in my book, and the word isn’t innovation.

Right now, I’m finding myself writing much, much less, precisely because I no longer find the economics justify the time spent. I have about 30 draft articles outlined, but why would I write them if they’ll just be excerpted and used to drive revenue to someone else’s site?

What am I missing?

Activation Required software poses a serious risk to your business

Click here to download this article in PDF format.

Think twice before buying “activation required” software.

Microsoft has certainly endorsed a dangerous trend: software that requires activation to install and run it. More and more, it’s not enough that you purchase software and install it with a serial number they give you; you must also be connected to the internet or call their telephone activation center to activate the software when you run it.

The reason is simple: the software publishers don’t trust you. They think you’re a thief, and want to monitor every installation of the software closely. It makes sense from their point of view, at least, if one assumes that customers are basically immoral, unethical criminals out to steal anything they can. But as customers, the activation trend is more than just unfriendly; it’s outright dangerous.

The first of these activation schemes was Adobe Corporation’s “Type on Call.” They would sell you a cd full of fonts, and you would call Adobe to “unlock” fonts you had purchased.

Over time, I purchased over $2,000 worth of fonts from Adobe. My corporate identity was built on those fonts, some of which cost upwards of $500 for all the different weights and styles.

Then a couple of years ago, I bought a new computer. I went to install my Type-on-Call fonts and discovered that the activation servers had been shut down. Adobe had decided to discontinue the service, and suddenly I was no longer able to access fonts I’d paid dearly for. No one at Adobe was able to help, until bombarding the upper management with letters led one marketing manager sent me a cd-rom of the fonts.

Here’s the danger: in the interests of their fraud protection, you are integrating the business fortunes and decisions of the software vendor into your infrastructure. If they go out of business, get acquired, or just decide to stop supporting their service, the next time you need to install their software, you can’t do it. If that software is critical to your business, you’re just plain out of luck.

And even if they’re still in business, it’s still a business burden for you. You won’t always have a net connection when setting up a new machine. Sometimes—for security reasons or otherwise—you might want to install with your new machine disconnected from the network. Whatever the case, you’ll now have to jump through activation hoops. Recently, Act 2005 required me to call an activation number, only to get a recorded message that all operators were at home preparing for a severe weather alert. So now, my business gets stalled by severe weather 3,000 miles away. Great.

Windows already takes way too long to reinstall, thanks to its convoluted design. If you have to make activation phone calls and convince a $3.95/hour temp that you own the software you’ve already bought and paid for, you’re spending more of your time and money just to satisfy their paranoia.

And speaking of paranoia, they don’t trust you yet they expect you to trust them. They want you to let their activation program connect freely to the net. For all you know, their activation process also sends your financial data along with your activation code. Trust should be two-way, don’t you think?

Of course, no company would ever use this as a technique for forcing you to upgrade. Microsoft, for example, would never abuse their activation system by dropping activation of old products, forcing you to upgrade the next time you buy a new computer. But if a Microsoft doobie reads this article, watch out, they just may change their mind.

“But,” you say, “I don’t mind upgrading.” Fine. But what if the new version conflicts with something you currently run? Current versions of my contact manager program don’t work smoothly an older calendar utility I use. I’d rather not upgrade the contact manager because the calendar integration is too important.

And though vendors don’t like to face it, software dies out. Some of the best software I’ve ever used (and continue to use) has been discontinued over time. If it had required activation, I’d be out of luck, forced to use inferior software. Some great software has started requiring activation, so I’m sticking with the last version I could install at will:

  • Windows 2000. XP requires activation.
  • PGP 8. pgp 9.0 requires activation. Funny that a company supposedly devoted to their customers’ integrity has a policy that could jeopardize a customer’s entire business!
  • Quicken and Quickbooks require activaton.
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX. MX 2004 requires activation.
  • AdSubtract Pro 2.55. AdSubtract Pro 3 requires activation.
  • Act! 6.0. Act 2005 is a definite improvement, but requires activation.
  • Most Adobe products now require activation.

It’s a sorry world when vendors so callously disregard the business integrity of their customer, but as a customer, be wise and pressure vendors to sell us software that works the way our businesses require.

Internet: mass manipulation tool?

I’m downloading Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday, about media manipulation on the internet, at the recommendation of a professional journalist friend.

As I read a few of Ryan’s blog articles and PR interviews from the book, I’m struck by how much his experience matches mine. Though I’ve not tried the kind of conscious manipulation he describes, I’ve seen it all over the place and noticed the same lack of basic fact checking in various stories I’ve been involved in.

My most striking example of this was several years ago when a Fortune 500 company revealed to me how easy it is for them to engage in mass manipulation now that the blogosphere lets them leak stories from different sources and have it all build to appear to be a preponderance of independent evidence.

Another Ryan, the amazing and awesome Ryan Allis (founder of iContact, uber-optimist, and serial entrepreneur) and I spoke about this over dinner a few weeks ago. His view is that the internet has evolved to the point where the truth will come out, despite attempts at manipulation. Especially with the rise of social media, manipulation doesn’t stand a chance because the truth will get out via informal networks.

What do you think?