The Forward Mind

A thinking man's guide to mastery

Spark

Have you ever had your car battery die on you? It always seems to happen at the worst of times. Batteries never just die in your driveway. They always seem to die when you’re late to a meeting, or on a date, or on a road trip with friends. Luckily, jumping a car is a fairly simple process. You just need someone with a running car and jumper cables, and you’re all set. And yet, asking a stranger for a jump seems a lot harder than that, doesn’t it? The thought of asking a stranger to donate their time to you can be very daunting for many people. Why is that? Think about the role reversal. If someone asked you to help them jump their car, most of you would be happy to do it. It feels good to help others. We want the feeling of helping, but never the feeling of needing help.

Obviously, I’m not just talking about cars. Sometimes in life you get stuck in a rut. You’re having a bad day, or maybe even a bad month, but you refuse to ask for help. All you need is a quick pick-me-up, a few minutes of time from a close friend, but you refuse to ask and so you just keep sinking lower and lower. Remember this. That good feeling that you get from helping others, your loved ones will get from helping you. It’s OK to ask for a leg up once in a while. Conversely, if you know someone who seems like they’re trudging through something on their own, offer a helping hand. Sometimes all people need is a quick jump to get back on track.

Amnesia

Whether we like it or not, most of us are masters of routine. We wake up around the same time, eat the same things for breakfast, work the same job, exercise the same way (or not at all), see the same few people, and go to sleep around the same time. We drive the same routes, listen to the same stations, and at the end of the day, we generally complain about the same things. I’m not here to tell you this is a bad thing or that every day is supposed to be some wild new adventure of different foods and taking the road less traveled. Most of our routines are good because they give us one less thing to think about every day. It would get exhausting trying to find new routes to drive or new stations to listen to all the time.

However, it does give us something to think about. Imagine what it would be like to wake up today, with zero recollection of your past. Let’s pretend that you woke up this morning in your body, in your house, with your things and your life, but you had no way of knowing anything up to this point. Suddenly somebody is telling you what your job is, who your friends are, and what you like to eat so that you can go about your day. My questions is this: Would you be happy with that?

Sometimes you need to ask yourself hard questions. Are all of your friends really good for you, or are they fueling an addiction, holding you down, bringing negativity into your life? Are you on the right career path, or did you take the first job that came along and stuck with it because it was comfortable? I guess the real question is “what would you do if you didn’t know what you were supposed to do”. I’m not telling you to run off and join the Peace Corps. We all have to eat, pay bills, and take care of our loved ones. What I’m saying is that most of us identify so strongly with our past that we don’t think about what’s best for our present. We hang out with our friends because, well, those are the people we’ve always hung out with. We’ve had the same job for 20 years so we’ve never thought to question it.

For the next few days, pay attention to your routines. Think about whether you want to be doing the same thing next year, or 5 years from now. Maybe you made choices based on what was best for you in the past. Are those choices what’s best for you today?

Riptide

Ever heard of a riptide?  If you’ve ever been a lifeguard on a beach, or simply been the overprotective dad doing research before taking your kids, I’m betting you have.  Riptides account for more than 80% of the rescues performed by beach lifeguards.  It’s simple enough to understand.  You’re at the beach, playing in the water, maybe you’ve had too much to drink or are simply lying on a raft, when suddenly you look around and realize that you are much further from the shore line than you were originally.  A powerful undercurrent has pulled you slowly but surely away, and it can be very overwhelming and exhausting to get yourself back to the beach.

Riptides are a real and scary situation to be in, but a very similar phenomenon happens to many of us in our everyday lives.  Each of us starts off in our own little spot, with firm footing and a pretty good grasp of where we’d like to go.  However, as time goes on, we eventually get pulled this way and pushed that way, and one day we look around and realize that we are no longer anywhere near where we expected to be.  It’s like life just takes us along for a ride, and if we aren’t careful we can end up very far away from shore, and suddenly our goals seem so far away.

It is important to understand that this is going to happen.  There will always be challenges and obstacles that drive you this way and that.  Unexpected events carry us away from our goals sometimes, but they don’t have to stop us.  A quick search for how to escape a riptide will tell you that it is pointless to fight the current, and I think it is equally pointless to try and fight against every change in your life, because some of them will bring new opportunities. However, sometimes it’s good to do a quick check.  Remember who you are, and where you want to be.  Poke your head up and look around, and ask yourself if you’re still heading in the right direction, or if you need to escape the current.

 

Find your footing

Have you ever been rock climbing?  Most people have been at least once, climbing at their local mall or at the fair.  Most people go about it the same way the first time they try it.  They immediately start grabbing at every rock they see, pulling themselves hard and fast up the wall. This works… on the easy routes.  Once you start doing anything other than the mall rock wall, however, you start to learn a few tips.  After rock climbing for a few short months now, I’ve learned that trying to force your way up a wall by pulling on every rock you see is surprisingly not the best strategy.  The trick, instead, is to use your feet to push yourself up the wall, using your hands only to grip the holds and reach accordingly.  The most important part, you see, is to find your footing first, and move forward only when you’re ready.

I couldn’t help but find myself pondering how this tip could be applied to our everyday lives.  Most of us want it all right now.  We want the dream job, the lake house, the fast car, the beautiful girl, and piles and piles of money.  So you dive head first, trying frantically to get to the top.  You keep pulling and pulling at every rock you see, but never take the time to find your footing first.  In your rush to have everything you want in life, you end up just like the novice rock climber.  You fall on your ass.

I think maybe the best course of action is to stop rushing.  Take a deep breath, and find your footing first.  Maybe you’ve just graduated, and are upset that you didn’t get your dream job or even your dream industry.  Maybe you thought you’d have a spouse and a family and a house in the suburbs by now.  Maybe you’re simply disappointed with where you are in life, and feel that the top is so far away that you will never achieve your dreams.  This is the plight of the novice rock climber.  The trick isn’t to look at the top.  The trick is to look at the next step.  Don’t worry about where you thought you’d be and how far away that goal seems to you.  Take an honest look at the goals that line up with your character, and ask yourself what is the next step I need to take?

If you are surrounded by instability, find your footing first.  This might mean simply focusing your energy on the job you have, and not thinking about the job you don’t have.  Maybe it means focusing more on the people that have been introduced into your life, even if you can’t see how it could possibly lead to the romantic interest you’ve been dreaming of.  You can’t always see the end goal and how you’re going to achieve it, but if you find your footing first, and continually take small steps towards your goals, you’ll begin to see the big picture unfold, and before you know it, you’ll be at the top of the wall.

The Boogeyman

You wake up in the middle of the night.  The room is pitch black, except for some light coming underneath your door.  The light is barely enough, but you can start to make things out in the room as you look around.  Suddenly, you see him.  There is a man sitting in a chair in the corner of your room staring directly at you, and he’s holding a gun.  Your heart leaps from your chest and you immediately spring to action (more than likely you just sit there frozen scared, but in the story you tell later you’ll have leapt immediately to action).  You run to the door and turn on the light switch to find…

Clothes.  Just a large pile of dirty clothes that you threw into your chair the day before.  In the dark they looked like the figure of a man, but as soon as you shed some light on them, you realize you were just overreacting.  This has probably happened to many of you as children.  You get tucked into bed, the door closes, the lights turn off, and suddenly you’re filled with terror.  The room was just there in front of you for all to see, but now the unknown sets in and you start hearing noises and seeing shadows.  Contrary to what your parents may have thought, however, you weren’t scared of your room.  And you weren’t scared of the dark.

You were scared of the unknownAnd for the most part, you still areYour fears are a lot like the Boogeyman in the nightThey will disappear the second you shed some light on them.

Most articles and books on fear will tell you to face your fears head on.  I only recommend this technique for irrational fears.  You are scared of snakes for a reason.  Poisonous snakes will kill you, and there is not a huge benefit to playing with them. You are startled by gunshots because your ancestors ran from gunshots and survived to pass on their genes.  These are rational fears and reactions.

However, if you have an irrational fear, I recommend exposing yourself to it in small doses, and slowly getting more and more exposure until your fear is diminished, if not gone entirely.  A good example of an irrational fear is public speaking.  Yes, crowds have gone crazy and rioted in the past, trying to kill the speaker.  No, it is not going to happen while you’re presenting on “How a bill becomes a law” in your high school government class.  I do public speaking for a living, and can attest that it gets easier the more you do it.

I want you to start thinking about what scares you, and label that an irrational or a rational fear.  Some rational fears, like heights, become irrational as long as you are using caution.  Find out what you are irrationally afraid of, and think of an incredibly small way to expose yourself to that fear.  Then you can start getting over that fear slowly and with more exposure.  No more boogeyman… just dirty clothes.

Do you want to play music, OR do you want to be a famous musician?

There is a difference.  You’ve probably known a guy who goes to his local music store, spends hundreds of dollars buying a guitar, amp, cord, pedals, etc. just to put everything up on craigslist three months later.  Now, it could be that the hobby just didn’t interest him, or maybe he found a new hobby.  Or, it could be that the vision he had in his head when he bought that equipment had nothing to do with playing guitar.  He may have envisioned himself on a giant stage, spotlights blinding him while droves of screaming fans try desperately to get his attention.    Maybe he imagined a line of girls waiting outside his tour bus, desperately hoping that he’ll sleep with them.

The problem with this fantasy of his is that it already assumes he knows how to play the guitar magnificently.  He doesn’t want to learn guitar, he wants to know guitar.  He doesn’t want to embark on a journey towards mastery over a musical instrument.  He wants fame, fortune, and sex.  After a month of hardly picking up his guitar, he will throw in the towel, put it all on craigslist, and use that money to go buy DJ equipment so that he can be the next Skrillex. A month after that, the dj equipment will appear on craigslist too.  Noticing a pattern?  Here’s the lesson:

When you are picking a hobby, a job, or simply looking for something that interests you, make your decision with the assumption that you will not receive any fame, fortune, or recognition  for your hard work, other than the enjoyment of the hobby itself. 

Let’s look at what this means.  Say you’re looking for a hobby, and you think you want to play guitar.  Assume that you will never, ever be a rock star, and imagine that nobody will ever get to hear you play other than close friends and family members.  Do you still want to learn guitar?  Yes?  Great, then go get one.  You’re in for an awesome journey.  People who are excellent at their craft are usually doing it for the craft.  The money and the fame may be an additional benefit, but that isn’t the reason for getting into the hobby (or in some cases, maybe it is, but it shouldn’t have been).  For example, electronic music has hit mainstream popularity over the last decade or so.  DJ Tiesto is an incredibly well respected electronic artist, and because of its new popularity, his concerts are killing.  But DJ Tiesto has been making electronic music since 1994, when it only appealed to a small, niche audience.  He truly likes making electronic music, and it shows in his work.

So the next time you’re thinking of pursuing something you believe you want, just ask yourself “do I really want this, or do I just want to be known as somebody who wants this”.  If the answer is that you really want it, then congratulations, you’ve found a legitimate interest, and you can pursue it to mastery.

Is the world rejecting you, or are you rejecting yourself?

You hear it all the time.  Your best friend is complaining about how they haven’t gotten a raise in 5 years, despite giving everything they’ve got to the company.  They tell you they’ve worked hard, come in on weekends, and gone above and beyond in every way, but their boss still won’t give them a raise.  Then they go on a hate-parade about how their boss is a selfish, totalitarian douchebag who only cares about profits.  Finally, you ask the inevitable question.

“So… how much of a raise did you ask for?”

You friend turns to you and replies “oh… well I didn’t ask for one, but I deserve one because I’ve been with the company for 5 years”

Think about this for a second.  You’re the owner of an organization.  Are you going to willingly give more money to people?  Not if you’re any good.  Increases in income only boost morale for a short while, and then employees return to their normal level of productivity.  You don’t volunteer raises; you give them to people who ask for them.  If you work at a company for five years and you’ve never asked for a raise, then you shouldn’t be surprised that you haven’t gotten one.  Here’s the take-away:

You will be amazed at the things that you can get if you simply ask for them.

Your boss didn’t reject your raise.  You did.  And this goes for just about every other aspect of your life.  You see a cute girl sitting at a bar texting on her phone.  You walk away thinking “girls like that never go for guys like me…”, but you never say a single word to her.  That girl didn’t reject you.  You rejected yourself.

I know what you’re thinking.  Easier said than done.  You agree with me completely, but when you’re actually about to walk into your bosses office, or walk up to that girl at the bar, your heart is pounding, your survival instinct has kicked in, and your rational mind is creating a tornado of excellent reasons not to pursue what you want.  I won’t bore you with the evolutionary biology that’s gone into this response, but maybe I can help a bit.

People always say that when you approach a situation, you should imagine the best possible scenario, but I always like to imagine the worst-case scenario, because once you’ve done this a couple of times, you’ll find out that the worst-case scenario never, ever happens. So, what is the worst case scenario of asking your boss for a raise?  Simple. He fires you.  You walk in and demand a raise, and your boss thinks “whoa, is this Carl from accounting?  I thought we fired him months ago!  I’m glad he brought his existence to my attention, otherwise he would have received his meager salary for the rest of his life!!” .  Now you have no raise, and no job.  You go home and tell your wife, who leaves you immediately, taking the kids and half your income.  Then the IRS comes to collect on back taxes and throws you in jail, where you are viciously raped.

Sounds a little over the top, right?  That’s because it is.  Let me tell you what will realistically happen.  You’ll ask your boss for a raise, and he’ll sit you down and talk to you about quarterly profits, and how his boss is on his ass about the numbers, and how the company just doesn’t have the money to give raises right now.  Then he’ll tell you to ask again at your next performance review and he’ll “see what he can do”.  You won’t get a raise, and life will proceed as normal.  Or, you’ll get a raise.

That girl at the bar?  She isn’t going to throw a drink in your face, blow her rape whistle, or immediately call on the Sopranos to beat the shit out of you with a baseball bat.  Here’s what will realistically happen with her.  You’ll walk up and start talking to her, she’ll be polite and give you a minute or two of conversation, and then she’ll say something like “Well listen my friends are over there, but it was nice talking to you” and walk away.  If she’s really classy, she’ll even touch your forearm when she says this.  You’ll have been rejected, and life will proceed as normal.  Or, you’ll immediately hit it off and spend the rest of your life together.

The point is this.  Before you assume that you can’t have something, shouldn’t have something, don’t deserve something, and will never be happy without that something, why not just ask for it? Why not ask the simple question?  You might get absolutely nothing out of it.  Or you might get everything.

Find your target audience

Have you ever been watching a children’s TV show, and suddenly a commercial comes on for something?  Maybe the commercial is for pillows that light up or shoes with wheels in them, or maybe there is a cartoon tiger extolling the virtues of a balanced breakfast.  Whatever the case, I’m betting you didn’t find the commercial that entertaining.  You may have even thought to yourself “man, if advertising executives are getting paid for making this crap, i could probably make a fortune”.  Well, the odds are good that it wasn’t actually a bad commercial.  So why did you hate it?  Because it wasn’t made for you. The commercial was made to appeal to the interests of kids, because they are the ones that are going to be begging their parents to buy it for them.  Even though you hated it, your kids didn’t, and that’s what matters.  This goes for any product, commercial, idea, song, movie, etc.  They are made with a certain audience in mind.  You might be that audience, and you might not, but as long as the product appeals to it’s demographic, it is succeeding, and here’s the kicker.

You are a product.

And just like any other product, your ideas, your personality, your style, looks, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies are all made to appeal to a certain demographic.  There is a specific audience out there that you appeal to.  More importantly, you must accept the fact that yourself and your ideas will not appeal to everyone. There are going to be plenty of people out there that simply do not like you.  They will never like you.  If you were stuck in an elevator with them, they would be upset.  This is devastating to most people, and they react to it by trying to act in a way that will not upset or annoy anybody, ever.  Some people are very good at this, and let me be the first to tell you that you might succeed, and nobody will ever hate you again.  Oh, but I should also mention that nobody will ever particularly like you again, either.  In fact, you’ll just kind of fade to the background.  You’ll be easy to forget.  Nobody will bother you because you won’t be in anybody’s way.  Is that the life you want?

Ever hear of Rush Limbaugh?  I’m betting you have.  I’m betting you either love him, or you absolutely hate him.  There isn’t really a middle ground for people that know extensively of who Rush Limbaugh is.  Rush Limbaugh is a great example of somebody who has found his target demographic.  He has ideas, and opinions, and thoughts of his own, and he isn’t afraid to share them with whoever will listen, and a lot of people hate him for it.  And guess what?  A lot of people love him for it too.  So how can you find your target demographic? Start small.  Develop a personality, and let others know what it is.  Next time you have an opinion of something, say it out loud.  You didn’t like that movie?  Tell everybody why.  You love Yorkshire Terriers?  Why is that?  Blog about it.  Talk about it.  Start a group dedicated to it.  Over time, you’ll notice that certain people will start to avoid you.  Let them go, you weren’t made for them.  You’ll also notice certain people gravitate to you.  Congratulations, you’ve found your demographic.

You are only competing with yourself

Think you’re good at guitar??  Maybe you’ve spent a really long time practicing and have gotten pretty good at it.  Cool.  Here’s a video of an 8 year old kid playing better than you are http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGTfDf4b5oE. Does that depress you?  It shouldn’t.

The world has gotten smaller.  The internet has allowed us to look into the lives and talents of people millions of miles away.  No matter how good you are at something, there is most likely somebody in the world that is better than you are. This is not a bad thing, but it does bring to light an important aspect of our minds.  We tend to compare ourselves to the people around us.  And even worse, we compare ourselves up instead of down, meaning we tend to think of the people that are better, faster, stronger, richer, and better looking than we are instead of all of the people that have it worse.  This is why money tends to only buy short-term happiness, before people are looking for their next pay day.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good for you to have ambition, but here’s the thing:

The only person that you should be comparing yourself with is yourself, yesterday.

How do you compare with yourself one month ago?  How about one year ago?  Are you trending upwards, or downwards?  This is all that matters.  Confucius said “it does not matter how slow you go, so long as you do not stop”.  This is the heart of it.  If you constantly compare yourself to others, you will paralyze yourself trying to be better than everyone until you give up on improving entirely.  The important thing is to constantly be making small, incremental changes in your own life for the positive.  Are you jealous of a guy that can do 200 pushups?  Start doing 5 pushups a day.  Wish you had a million dollars? Buy something low and sell it for a 10 dollar profit.  Scared of talking to girls?  Start by asking her the time.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  You get the idea.  Make a log if you have to.  Where are you today?  Where do you want to be in a year?  What is a small action that you can take today to make that happen?  Good, now go do it.