The tall shelf in our mom’s closet that we can’t quite reach

One evening at my support group, we did an exercise that annoyed me.

The guy leading the discussion posed the following question, giving each member two minutes to answer:

What is standing between you and total happiness right now?

It sounded like something pulled from the appendix of a life coaching handbook. One of those sharp, poignant questions that’s supposed to cut to the core of the client’s soul and reveal who they really are.

But to me, that question is total bullshit.

First, because it’s centered around happiness. Which is deeply importantly, but mostly in the micro. Each of us should have a list of small and simple adjustments, additions and subtractions that will have a disproportionate effect on our overall happiness.

Like keeping floss picks at our desk or waking up without an alarm on the weekends. That’s happiness.

However, when it comes to the macro level, happiness is not the target. It’s our reward for hitting the target. Fulfillment is the target. Happiness is just a pleasant aftershock.

Here’s the second fallacy of this question.

What is standing between you and total happiness right now?

Well, this assumes that happiness is this thing that’s out there somewhere, and it’s ours for the taking, but only after we satisfy certain conditions and requirements. Like getting a job, finding true love, buying a house and having children.

Once those pesky little items are checked off our to do list, then we can focus on being happy.

But until then, happiness will continue exceed our grasp, like the tall shelf in our mom’s closet that we can’t quite reach.

Most of us approach life in this way. We mistakenly believe that happiness, fulfillment, satisfaction, meaning, joy, or whatever other existential reward we’re searching for, isn’t something we have access to in the moment.

When the reality is, that’s the only place we can find it. Our experience of those rewards is completely dependent on how we relate to the present moment.

Trying to imagine a more ideal version of right now is what causes us to suffer.

To use one of my favorite metaphors, we’re standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.

How many conditions need to be met before you’re happy?

They won’t do it just because you asked nicely once

Consider the following scenario.

An employee casually comments to a company executive about a challenge they’re having with their work. That leader listens attentively and thanks the team member for bringing the issue to their attention.

Then they go back to whatever seven things they were doing before the interruption.

And about a month later when nothing changes, the complaining employee throws their hands up in the air and says, well, I guess this company doesn’t think my issue is that important.

Who’s fault is that?

In my opinion, the onus is on the employee. Because in any organization, if there’s something you need to help you do your job better, nobody’s going to give it to you.

Just because you suggest something does not mean leaders are somehow committed to listening and executing what you say.

To paraphrase the great philosopher, one mention does not a wholesale change make. You have to take real ownership.

And if that means mounting an evidence campaign, making a strong case for yourself and championing your own idea until it gets through several months later, then so be it.

If that means building a coalition with other coworkers to grow a critical mass around the idea, then so be it.

If that means bothering people until they say yes just to get rid of you, then so be it.

This is sales, son. Seven touch points is the minimum amount of soil to give the seed of your new idea the best chance to blossom.

Reminds me of my various company improvement suggestions that never took flight. In most cases, I was a victim of my own entitlement. My assumption was that being proactive enough to mention my brilliant idea once would be enough to get it off the ground.

But nobody does anything just because you asked nicely once. Especially busy, smart, high ranking leadership folks. They have so much on their plate already, that regardless of your idea’s quality, it won’t even reach the top of the pile unless it costs them money or serious embarrassment.

Listen, ownership is not a set of rights, it’s a state of mind. In a world where most employees accumulate an endless streak of staring responsibility in the eye and running in the opposite direction, you can be the one who actually follows things to fruition.

But persistence will be the great separator. 

What idea of yours never took flight because you only asked once?

Joy is boring at best and deluded at worst

Nobody likes anything anymore.

Everyone is too concerned with being seen as cool and clever, and they can’t accomplish that when they put themselves on the line.

Much easier to analyze everything to a pulp. People garner more attention and greater social status by making snide comments, explaining why a thing sucks and why they’re above it.

Joy is boring at best and deluded at worst.

Part of this cultural trend is the evolution of the human negativity bias. Our brains have been wired to avoid all threats to life, limb and social reputation, which is why we default to not liking things.

It’s for preservational purposes. Darwin would say it’s our drive to maximize the success of our genetic material. On the savannah, it was better to perceive something as more dangerous than it was to risk entering the fray.

Fast forward to millions of years later, better to rationally dissect this new piece of media within an inch of its life than to just relish in the experience.

One of my good friends publishes a brilliant movie review website. He uses a simple heuristic for gauging films.

Think, laugh, cry.

As long as the movie causes him to do one of those things, then he considers it a worthwhile investment of his time and money.

Does he like every movie? Of course not. But at least he opens himself to the possibility of having feelings besides contempt and sarcasm, aka, the low hanging fruit of human emotions.

Adam’s reviews aren’t published to establish his bona fides as a journalist or signal his authority as a critic. He just loves movies. Seeing films sparks his brain and triggers his heart and touches his soul.

Doesn’t that sound delightful? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just kick back and enjoy things again?

We have completely lost our ability to treat ourselves.

Too focused on mentally cataloging our outrage and dissatisfaction, we can’t just take two hours and lose ourselves in some art and forget about the fact that we’re all going to die.

What was the last thing you simply, directly and publicly declared that you liked?

Bemoan your need to catch up on anything

Here’s proof that pressure is a choice.

When was the last time you complained about how you needed to catch up on something?

Maybe it was email, television, work, sleep, laundry, life goals, books, podcasts, social media, celebrity gossip, news, whatever.

For some reason, you felt a nagging sense of being behind.

Like the two women who were seated next to me on the subway. One of them was stressing about the upcoming three day weekend, as she needed to spend the bulk of her time catching up on the past three seasons of that new zombie apocalypse series everybody was talking about at the office.

Keep in mind, that was a choice she made. Pressure she put on herself to keep up with something that other people deemed meaningful.

When the reality is, all of that stress could have been avoided from day one, if she had a better handle on identifying and managing her priorities.

The problem is, most of us have not mastered that skill. We allow external forces such as culture and friends and trends to determine our priorities for us, rather than engaging in activities that are uniquely appealing to us.

All because we’re afraid of missing out. Our fear is that we won’t be able to join the conversation at work about that stupid zombie show, lose our social status and bragging rights, get rejected from our peer group, get fired, go broke and die alone.

Pressure is a choice.

On the other end of the attitudinal spectrum, people who have a healthy, prosperous and relaxed relationship with time rarely make these kinds of statements. They never bemoan their need to catch up on anything, since they trust that they have plenty of time to do everything.

They don’t fall behind on their life because they practice complete abstinence from ever complaining about anything time related. The only people who stress about needing to catch up on things are the ones who live in a victim position in regards to their time.

And sure, everyone’s life gets busy, stressful and overwhelming. Nobody is immune to the ordinary misery of human existence.

But for the most part, the more you complain about needing to catch up on things, the less healthy of a relationship you have with your priorities. Period.

If you’re concerned that your time is managing you, not the other way around, consider some of these questions. I’ve collected them over the years to help keep my priorities aligned with my own values, and maybe they can do the same for you.

Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?

Are you satisfied with the way you currently spend time?

Are you spending priority time with problem people or potential people?

Can you live with the consequences of not doing this?

Did someone else ask you to do this for their purposes?

Do you know how much money one hour of your time is worth?

How much time do you spend on obligations imposed by others?

What are you doing that makes no sense at all?

What are you doing today to increase your freedom tomorrow?

What drives you into a desert of meaningless activity?

What in your life would change if you believed you had all that you needed?

Now if you’ll excuse me, season four of the zombie show just got released, and I gotta go catch up.

What if you accepted that pressure was a choice?

Are you eating according to need or greed?

Greed has officially been elevated to the status of virtue.

Gekko’s speech comes to mind:

Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

But there’s a different brand of greed that’s lesser known. It’s not necessarily the intense and selfish desire for wealth, power or all the chocolate cookies.

Rather, it’s the compulsive need to do and see everything.

Nepo has a beautiful meditation about this in his book of awakening:

We suffer, often unknowingly, from wanting to be in two places at once, from wanting to experience more than one person can. This is a form of experience greed. The assumption that we can do it all. Feeling like we’re missing something or that we’re being left out.

When was the last time you felt a nagging sense of fomo? Did your greed take the helm and try to sign you up for everything, just so you didn’t miss out on anything?

That kind of compulsion can have very real impact on your body, mind and spirit. If you try to push yourself past where you are honestly able to go, day after day, week after week, it’s going to add up.

Enwrapped by greedy tongues, your spirit will fatigue.

One of my startup jobs had this affect on me. The entire team, all five hundred of us from fifteen countries, would meet twice a year in various cities around the world. And in addition to the actual workday, there were breakfasts, lunches, happy hours, team building activities, dinners, dance outings, late night pub crawls, even breakfast again the next day, for those who stayed up all night.

Europeans sure known how to party, don’t they?

Naturally, trying to be a team player and impress my foreign colleagues, my participation was through the roof. For about three days. Until all that action caught up with me in the form of exhaustion and losing my voice.

Lesson learned, we can’t experience everything. Even if we could, we wouldn’t want to.

Greed might be good in the stock market, but when it comes to our daily lives, the fear of missing out is not a healthy motivator.

Being the person who never misses out on anything is not status symbol worth pursuing. It’s okay to say no to things. It’s okay to not attend everything.

The people who matter won’t love or value us any less, just because we decline an invitation in favor of taking care of ourselves. 

What is your greed obliging you to do that you don’t really want to do?

Instead of complaining, go start your own company

This guy at my old office was a total pain in the ass.

All he did was complain. And not in that productive startup way, where people channel their frustrations into doing innovative work that solves problems and creates real value in the world.

He just bitched. About every little thing. Each new gripe added another drop of swampy backwater of unproductive energy.

Reminds me of the morning we came into the office and there was a email from him to waiting in all of our inboxes.

Not sure who the last one out was last night, but just got here and the office was unlocked or whatever.

Wow, thanks for passive aggressively pointing out a problem, not describing it appropriately, sharing none of your feelings, shirking any shred of responsibility, making no helpful solutions and distracting the maximum number of people possible. You deserve a promotion.

Carlin’s angry words come to mind, these unfortunate pack of mutants ought to be penciled in for a sudden visit from the angel of death.

However, instead of complaining about the complainers, here are two advertisements for my ideas to help solve my own problem.

Every day at the office, you want to punch or break something, but you don’t want to lose your job or hurt somebody.

Ragecage, is a carpentry service that builds a safe space in corporate offices so frustrated and angry employees have a cathartic place to process their anger instead of lashing out against coworkers. Rally your inner animal today.

Here’s the next one.  

Anger is an acceptable emotion and we shouldn’t feel guilty about hating certain people. We just need a safe way to express those feelings.

Yaytred is an anonymous confession app for people to healthfully rage about those in their lives that they irrationally hate. Blow off some steam without resorting to physical violence or passive aggression. Burning the fuel of anger cleanly.

See how easy that is?

At least my complaints are channeled into useful ideas.

Sure beats sitting around bitching about every little thing. 

Are you complaining about what isn’t here that you want, or taking steps to create something that is?

Absorb that data into our system

My yoga teacher, noticing me sitting out for a few posters during class, once shared the following recommendation.

Anytime your body can’t do something, that’s just information.

Meaning, it’s not an emergency that calls for swift action. It’s not a trigger for useless rumination. It’s not reason to beat ourselves up for being imperfectly human. It’s just information.

And thankfully, the bridge of the breath can be the thing that helps us engage our curiosity and absorb that data into our system.

Isn’t that interesting, we think to ourselves. Wonder what this feeling wants from me? Wonder what the learning is here? And wonder what adjustments could be made in my intention, energy or action?

It’s just information. This response is more mindful and less manic than our usual judging and comparing, which does nothing but stop the flow of presence.

Hell, curiosity doesn’t even stand a chance when shame is in the way. The goal here is to find the kindest and most tolerant inner voice possible, and use it to direct our attention lovingly.

Hamlet’s words ought to be invoked here, who said there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

No more thinking. We already think enough as it is. Anytime we can loosen the grip of entrenched mental habits, the better. A smarter use of our psychic energy is observing, noticing, listening and wondering. Treating our bodily messages as objectively and curiously as possible.

After the yoga class mentioned above, my teacher and I were chatting in the lobby. She could tell it wasn’t my body’s finest moment, so she left me with the following reminder.

Scott, she smiled, any time you listen to your body instead of hurting yourself, your teacher will be thankful. And so will you.

Whatever messages you’re being sent right now, from within or without, before you absorb it into your system, remember that it’s all just information. 

Are you willing to still listen to your mind without taking it too seriously?

Wait until you’re dead, then you can be successful

One reason so many people just surrender to the status quo and do nothing is because they’re tired.

Not physically tired, like when you need sleep, finish a marathon or work two double shifts back to back.

Rather, they’re tired because of decision fatigue. They’ve been making too many choices. They haven’t figured out how to simply their daily lives by deferring, delegating or deleting the work inside their heads.

Lebowski was a master at this practice. His manifesto urges us not to fall victim to the mindset that those who choose to simplify their lives and stop competing so aggressively invariably find themselves at increased risk of being left behind.

Our culture has conditioned us to believe that story and sip the sugary cocktail of capitalism, greed and status. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Most of our decisions don’t actually need to be made.

Each of us can find small but significant ways to simplify our lives and gradually freed ourselves from the more complex and caustic aspects of civilization.

The misconception about this practice is, it won’t make us smarter, more successful or enlightened. We’ll just appear that way because our bandwidth will be better allocated.

Thanks to the lifetime accumulation of a lack of decision fatigue, we can open up space for the natural order to emerge and make the status quaint relic of the past.

Adams, my top cartoonist and political pundit, tells the story of the smartest decision he ever made. After being trapped in a blizzard as a college student, he convinced himself to sell his car and move to the west coast and never see another snowflake again for the rest of his life.

Fast forward to today, when people complain to him about living in a flood plane or some other toxic environment, his advice to them is simple.

Do you want to know why my life is good today? It’s because I once lived in a place with no opportunity and many disadvantages but I cleverly fixed that problem by moving somewhere else. And so, move somewhere better, you idiot. I know your family lives here and your job is here, but just move. Stop making it someone else’s problem.

Remember, every day we already have to make thousands of decisions in this impossibly complex reality. And so, get in the habit asking yourself, will this course of action simplify or complicate my life?

If it’s the latter, move on. To quote my father, the reason you don’t sweat the small stuff is not because it’s all small stuff, but because as you get older, there’s more big stuff, and you need to conserve your energy. 

How much decision fatigue are you accumulating?

Look behind you for the frying pan

The expression, buttering me up, means to overly flatter someone in the hopes of getting something in return.

The phrase has religious origins. Hindu temples popularized the ritual hundreds of years ago, where worshippers would throw balls of ghee, clarified butter, at statues of their deities. By buttering up the gods, so to speak, worshippers would be rewarded with peace and good harvest.

What’s interesting to me is when this expression plays out in the workplace.

Like the time my coworker told our management team that she had difficulty accepting our founder’s praise as being genuine. He’s just buttering me up to do more work, she said.

Which got a hearty laugh during our meeting, but not from me. Because this is a real problem she’s going to have to contend with. And she’s not alone. This is a very common inner experience.

If you’re someone who often deflects, denies or distrusts positive feedback because you feel people are just buttering you up, consider that one or more of the following internal things are happening.

One, you don’t respect yourself as being someone worthy of admiration.
Two, you think putting yourself down makes you seem humble.
Three, you have a fear that people will be proven wrong and find out what a fraud you are.
Four, you don’t trust people who show affection to you because you don’t show affection to yourself.

It’s like the comedian whose standup revolves around how much he hates himself. The moment audience members start laughing and clapping, he immediately resents them for loving him. Because clearly, they have poor taste in humans.

Where are you on that spectrum? Are you free enough to risk being seen by other people, or are you looking behind you for the frying pan?

Gawain writes about this in her book on creating true prosperity. She says if we have had early life experiences of being physically or emotionally abused by someone with power, or if we have witnessed someone misusing power, we may be deeply imprinted with a fear of power. Afraid that if we become too visible, we will be noticed and abused again. We equate being seen with being unsafe.

Sounds awful. Even if someone doesn’t have a history of abuse, the fear is similar.

When all eyes, or even two eyes, are on fixed on us, people will see the ugly truth of who we really are.

No thank you. 

How well do you take compliments?

What’s my part, if any, in this unfolding? 

My friend is a vegetarian, but he calls himself a recovering vegan.

His favorite joke about his former diet is, vegans don’t care about animals, they just want to be angry.

It’s an extreme stereotype, but it does make me wonder about the emotion of anger and what it does to us.

Because being mad can be deeply empowering. We feel energized and righteous when we’re angry, but that means there might be an identity piece that’s hard for us to surrender in the absence of it.

Who are we without our rage? Will we lose our edge if we become less angry?

We may never know.

And this doesn’t suggest that anger is a negative thing. When it comes to our emotions, there are no good or bad or right or wrong feelings, only unhealthy ways of expressing them. Hell, anger is often the ember of most of my creative initiatives.

However, the dangerous behavior is when we misidentify the source of our emotions. When we operate under the illusion that there are these things that make us angry, and they exist outside ourselves.

They don’t. It’s an inside job.

Manhattan, for example, is a humongous city that’s cold, hard, rude and greedy, and that makes for one hell of an external stressor.

But as citizens of this hellhole of a metropolis, we can’t blame the city for our rage. Taking the city’s frenetic energy back home and continuing to fume about, that’s the culprit. That’s the internal stressor fueling our anger.

It’s like when my coworkers used to bitch about being tired and busy and annoyed that the subway is late and disgusted by hurricane of mass commerce that surrounds us.

Join the club, folks. Eight million other people agree with you. Blaming geography isn’t helping.

Masters suggests in his book about shadow work that we ask ourselves the following question:

What’s our part, if we have any, in such an unfolding?

Here’s the psychologists’s thinking behind this inquiry:

The less we know our shadow, the more likely it is that we’ll blame destiny for what happens to us. Not knowing our shadow, and what’s housed in it, reduces us to little more than puppets operated by unseen forces. But the less we’re run by what’s in our shadow, the more we’ll view our destiny as something we both make and are made by, something that’s far from immune from our choices.

Are you looking for a way to blame other people for your rage?

Maybe it’s part of your identity and you can’t let go of it.

But empowering as your anger might be, you have to ask what role you might be playing in creating it.

Does blaming deny you the individual journey you are here to make?

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