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I used to think that it was a really bad idea to be a cog in the system. I thought this for two reasons. First, I was personally averse to being a cog in any system, and of course any preference I have is the right one to have. Second, there were a ton of visible examples of people who were cogs in the machine and didn't really seem to be doing much.
But then last week I was at my friend's house, and he was watching the Ben Heck show. If you haven't seen it, it's a show where a very unfunny nerd makes amazing things by hand. In the episode I saw, Ben was making a soda can crusher powered by a very small motor.
If the motor was just attached directly to a crusher, it wouldn't do anything to the can. It would move fast, but there wouldn't be much torque. So he had to make gears-- cogs-- to take the input of the motor and mold it to the needs of the project. With a series of gears, he adapted the input to go much slower but have enough torque to crush the can.
With different gearing, he could have done the opposite. He could have sacrificed torque and made the gears spin very quickly.
We've started a new tradition on our cruise called BLunch, which stands for Business Lunch. One member of our gang presents some background on their business, followed by the biggest challenge they're facing, and then receives feedback from everyone else. We all take it seriously, and the group is comprised mostly of entrepreneurs, so the advice has been excellent so far.
Today the guest of honor at the BLunch had an interesting problem. She wanted to expand to make more money on her business, but her avenues for expansion were limited. Each of the most obvious and promising options were vetoed for one reason or another.
As we dug deeper, it turned out she was burnt out by her business. Aspects of it sapped her energy and reduced her motivation on the rest of it. These parts of her business made no money, but she felt obligated to fulfill them anyway. No one else in the group thought that they were worth the effort.
One thing I noticed, that I've also seen in myself, was that she was willing to accept compromise in her life, but only a finite amount. It struck me that she was "spending" that compromise inefficiently. She could completely cut out the compromise that was really burning her out, and instead compromise a little by working an a venture that her customers would love but wouldn't be particularly inspiring to her. Same amount of compromise in her life, but less burnout and more money.
The other day Todd and I were sitting in a cafe. Next to us was a guy who appeared to be a typical San Francisco yuppie. I wouldn't have talked to him, but Todd is more extroverted than I, so pretty soon we were chatting away.
He had overheard us talking about travel, so that's where the conversation went. We learned that he traveled for two weeks every month, mostly to go places to hike. I imagined in my head what that must look like-- fly business class from San Francisco, check into a nice hotel, hike around, come back.
He asked us where we normally stayed when we traveled. Friends or AirBnB, we answered. Did we ever stay in hostels? No, not really. Why, we asked? He answered that that's where he usually stayed. In an instant my perception of him changed. I'd assumed wrong.
As it turned out, he was a prison psychologist. He worked two weeks every month, and did the credit card hustle to rack up a ton of miles. He'd pick some far away spot to hike, book a hostel, and do the whole thing as cheaply as possible. No stress, very sustainable.
As I've mentioned before, I'm pretty frugal. I like spending money on things like the island, travel, and good food, but I also like saving money. I spend very little money frivolously, and don't have an overwhelming appetite for luxury.
I don't make much money, either. I'm content to have enough income to fund my inexpensive lifestyle, to save a little bit most months, and to retain control of almost all of my time to invest in big future projects like Sett.
Relatively frequently, though, I'll have a small windfall. Sometimes I'll have a good run in poker where I make a few thousand dollars within a couple days. My new book, Superhuman by Habit has been doing really well, too. Thanks to my readers and friends, it's been in the top 1000 books on Amazon. For a while last year my bitcoins were worth a bunch of money.
In these sorts of situations, it can be tempting to spend more money. People bargain with themselves, allowing themselves to spend some or all of unexpected sums of money they come across.
Sometimes as a plane takes off, or a line for a bus inches forward, I occupy myself by making a mental list of things I'm grateful for. The list is never-ending, but the item on the list that I'm always most grateful for are the people in my life, my friends and family.
I don't think that I'm a grand expert of friend making, but I must have done a few things right to end up with such great friends, and I think I can tease out some core ideas.
The first is to not annoy. When I think about great people I'm not good friends with, the reason for the distance is always some level of annoyance. And it always seems to be a shame-- such a great person, but so hard to spend the time with them that it would take to become friends.
I'm sure I do plenty of little annoying things, but my time in pickup helped me develop a self-awareness to seek out those things an eliminate them as best as possible. If you have trouble making friends with people you think should otherwise be your friends, it might be time for some deep introspection and work on awareness.
The end of a long cruise always feels a bit unfair. It doesn't seem right that tomorrow morning I'll be unceremoniously dumped onto the pier in Yokohama, Japan. Over the past fifteen days I've become accustomed to my new social circle of nine friends and a couple thousand senior citizens. The new routines we've made feel normal and I'm not ready to give them up.
I've wanted to go on a transpacific cruise for a long time. Transatlantics are my favorite, but going across the pacific affords more sea days and brings me to my favorite continent. There are only one or two that leave each year, though, so it's not as easy to schedule as a transatlantic.
Over the course of a few months I brought the cruise up with a bunch of friends. Ben Yu, Nick Gray, Jimmy Hayes, Doug Barber, and Dick Talens all agreed to come. Ben brought his friend Adrienne Tran, Nick brought Amit Gupta, Jimmy and Doug brought Jodi Ettenberg, and Dick brought Debra Romer.
Today I got selected as one of the first Amtrak residents. The original pool was narrowed down from sixteen thousand to just over one hundred, and then again to twenty four. This event makes it increasingly difficult to push away the idea that I might actually be a good writer.
I was flattered, but not all that surprised, to find that I was one of the semifinalists. It was easy to believe that most applicants weren't even writers, and that the hook of me being a Time Magazine top blogger was enough to make it to the next round.
Looking at some of the others in the pool, though, I couldn't help but be proud of the company I was in. Besides little old self-published me were highly distributed published authors and columnists for major magazines. Even a lot of the people disappointed they weren't chosen were really impressive.
Time Magazine chose me as one of the best bloggers. Amtrak chose me as one of the best writers. Derek Sivers, whose book list I look to for inspiration, emailed me to tell me that he loved my book and was going to publish a good review of it on his list.
Some of the most interesting attributes are those that are both good and bad. A simple prescription of elimination of the attribute or building it isn't sufficient. Instead we must learn to manage it, blunt the negatives and channel the positives.
Stubbornness is one such attribute, and it's one that I'm perhaps too intimately familiar with. Observing something like stubbornness within oneself is to see it through muddy water, though. Only in others is it really clearly seen, and that's often when it's best to apply the lessons learned to oneself.
When I'm being stubborn, it's so easy to believe that I'm right and that external resistance is only due to other's stubbornness. Stubbornness is glorious when you're right; it's the process of believing in yourself, not being swayed by those with a less perfect view than your own, and finally triumphing.
And in that way, stubbornness is a good. Many great ideas, inventions, and breakthroughs have come by way of stubbornness. Some of my biggest accomplishments are really the children of stubbornness.
There are some skills you have to build only because you're so bad at them. Mediocrity can go overlooked, but we're reminded of our biggest weaknesses constantly, either directly or through the reactions of others. For me, one such weakness was the inability to empathize.
I may have realized that my way wasn't always right if I had stopped to consider the idea for even a moment. That consideration never happened, though. Obviously my perspective was the only correct one, and anyone who strayed from whatever I thought was right was in jeopardy of being called an idiot.
Ironically, it took me becoming the idiot to learn. Only when I changed my mind on things could I look back and realize that whether I was the idiot now or then, I was indeed the idiot at some point. Of course, I could always have compassion for my old idiot self. I didn't know better. I was trying my best. Things sure looked that way from where I was sitting...
And that's the unlikely route that helped me develop empathy. I became at least aware enough that, after thinking someone is an idiot, I'll always try to find a good reason they're not. That reason almost always exists. I try to see it in people with whom I'm at odds. I try to see it in those who are pitted against my friends. I even try to do it for religious extremists, criminals, and bullies.
Since you're reading my blog, it's probably fair to guess that you're not content to coast through life, and that you've got ambitions that you're chasing. Maybe, like mine, these ambitions are beyond your current scope. They're things that will require years of effort to achieve, and maybe the feasibility of ever achieving them is in question.
How will you do this? You'll need to level up. Your skills or access or resources or maybe all three will have to increase.
The common fantasy is that you'll meet the right person who can carry you there effortlessly. Maybe I'll meet Zuckerberg, he'll decide he needs a blogging platform, and he'll buy Sett for millions, give me a huge team, and allow me to use Facebook's resources to usher in a new era of blogging.
Or maybe I'll have to do it on my own, like everyone else.