Go with the flow

An interesting selection from Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

For Csikszentmihalyi, the signature experience of experts is flow, a state of complete concentration “that leads to a feeling of spontaneity.” Flow is performing at high levels of challenge and yet feeling “effortless,” like “you don’t have to think about it, you’re just doing it.”

For example, an orchestra conductor told Csikszentmihalyi:

You’re in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. … My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out by itself.

And a competitive figure skater gave this description of the flow state:

It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean everything went right, everything felt good. …it’s just such a rush, like you could feel it go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, everything goes automatically without thinking.

Csikszentmihalyi has gathered similar first-person accounts from hundreds of experts. In every field studies, optimal experience is describes in similar terms.

Hedge funds love Hillary

From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Owners and employees of hedge funds have made $122.7 million in campaign contributions this election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics—more than twice what they gave in the entire 2012 cycle and nearly 14% of total money donated from all sources so far.

The lines around what constitutes a hedge fund aren’t always clear in the data, or in the financial industry. But the numbers are stark. The top five contributors to pro-Clinton groups are employees or owners of private investment funds, according to federal data released last week and compiled by OpenSecrets.org, the center’s website. The data show seven financial firms alone have generated nearly $48.5 million for groups working on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf.

The total for Donald Trump: About $19,000.

Some efficiency tips for noobs

My biggest pet peeves are clutter, unnecessary details and logistical messes.

I hate digging around for things in my own home. I can hardly stand watching someone try to find some important “lost” file on their computer because they weren’t thinking when they saved it the first time. I go crazy listening to people stress out while making last-minute decisions about where to eat, which route to take or who’s picking up which kid with which car from which friend’s house.

These things drive me nuts – more than they should, probably. I’m self-employed, which gives whole new meaning to the phrase “time is money” – if I miss a day of work, I miss a day of pay.

So in my never-ending attempt to avoid these frustrating situations, I’ve learned a few things about how to declutter and organize modern life. The three tips below barely scratch the surface of what’s needed to truly be organized and efficient, but they are three things most people don’t do that would otherwise massively reduce their day-to-day stress levels.

Use one digital ecosystem.

I don’t have experience beyond Microsoft and Google (I guess that leaves out Apple), but going all-or-nothing with one company’s solutions is really the only way they will help you, rather than cause frustration and anxiety. For example, I use Google almost exclusively—Gmail, Calendar, Chrome, Maps, Drive, Play, etc. Because these apps are all under one umbrella, they talk to each other. They coordinate events on their own in ways that make life easier for me. After a while, Google even starts to predict my behavior and informs me of things like traffic on my morning commute and weather on days I plan to fly.

ecosystem

Speaking of flying, I booked a flight last week on Expedia. Gmail “noticed” the email was a flight itinerary, so it “talked” to my Calendar and automatically added the flight to my calendar. And the day of the flight, Google will send me a note about when to leave my current location to get to my flight on time.

These things would not happen if I used, say, Microsoft for email, Apple for calendar and Yahoo! for maps. Instead, I’d have frustrating coordination problems that have me spending valuable time copy-pasting information from one app to another.

Use a calendar religiously.

I use Google Calendar for everything—work, personal and whatever falls in between. Both my wife and I update it immediately upon scheduling any appointment, which means we can see the future in real-time—we don’t have to call back and forth to confirm with our respective doctors, employers or family members when we’re available to do something.

calendar.png

Sound cluttered? It can be. But what’s great about most calendars is you can code events to appear on one calendar or another (work vs. personal, mine vs. my wife’s) and filter your view to see as many or as few calendars as you want.

For example, I regularly block off most weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on my calendar as “Work.” I code this as “Personal” so my wife can see it. Inside these blocks, I add my work meetings, calls, etc. But I don’t share these items with my wife. I share with her only what she needs to see in order to know when she can, say, schedule a massage for herself (i.e. have me watch the baby). She sees that I’m working that day without having to sift through dozens of me-exclusive items that don’t affect her, and I see what I need to do at work that day without having to manage separate calendars.

Make use of Sunday evenings.

I suspect Sunday evenings are down-time for most people – time to catch up on TV shows, recoup from a fun weekend, or simply zone out before the work week.

But taking just 15 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your upcoming week can make all the difference in the world. Review your schedule for the week and be ready for what’s coming ahead of time. You may even find yourself needing to look at your calendar less often during the week. I do.

My Plan

If you’re married or living with a partner, sit with them while you review your week. Then you can ask questions about confusing calendar items or tentative plans right then as they come up, instead of playing phone tag later in the week just to learn some annoyingly tiny but vitally important detail about some evening plan or another.

My personal gains from these 15 minutes, in terms of reduced stress and time saved during the workweek, are immense. I have avoided entire hours of coordinating and logistical planning. And I’ll bet the returns on this time grow exponentially as family size grows and the number of soccer practices, piano recitals, play dates and other engagements increases.

Jesus as salesman. Relatable Jesus.

We really don’t know much about Jesus.

To show that, here’s a perspective on Jesus from Bruce Barton – a critical dissection of his method that, for unclear reasons, I don’t think Christians are usually willing to entertain:

Finally he knew the necessity for repetition and practiced it.

It has been said that “reputation is repetition.” No important truth can be impressed upon the minds of any large number of people by being said only once. The thoughts which Jesus had to give the world were revolutionary, but they were few in number. “God is your father,” he said, “caring more for the welfare of every one of you than any human father can possibly care for his children. His Kingdom is happiness! His rule is love.” This is what he head to teach, but he knew the necessity of driving it home form every possible angle. So in one of his stories God is the shepherd searching the wilds for one wandering sheep; in another, the Father welcoming home a prodigal boy; in another a King who forgives his debtors large amounts and expects them to be forgiving in turn – many stories, many advertisements, but the same big Idea.

Another selection:

His language was marvelously simple – a second great essential. There is hardly a teaching which a child cannot understand. His illustrations were all drawn from the commonest experiences of life; “a sower went forth to sow”; “a certain man had two sons”; “a man built his house on the sands”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” The absence of adjectives is striking.

Jesus used few qualifying words and no long ones. We referred a minute ago to those three literary materpieces, The Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Gettysburg Address. Recall their phraseology:

  • Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  • The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Four score and seven years ago.

Not a single three-syllable word; hardly any two-syllable words. All the greatest things in human life are one-syllable things – love, joy, hope, home, child, wife, trust, faith, God – and the great advertisements, generally speaking, are those in which the most small words are found.

Irreverent to speak of Jesus as marketer? Was he simply an advocate of a “big Idea?” Is it right to consider and judge his method, even if we find it flawless?

On that note, here’s another selection to consider – this time from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

I’ve read this over and over. I think it shows just how little about Jesus we really know.

As a kid in Sunday School, I remember watching animated movies about this episode — of Jesus calling his disciples to “follow me.” In them, he walks about seemingly unknown to the hoards of people living around the Sea of Galilee. He walks up to random young men that he seemingly didn’t know beforehand. He asks them to drop their things and follow him.

They obey.

If you really think about it, there are only a few explanations for this. People do not randomly leave their families and livelihoods behind to follow a stranger. Have you done this? Has anyone you know done this?

Even cult leaders develop a relationship with their followers before leading them away from their families and livelihoods. Perhaps they wrote a book that their followers have read. Maybe they demonstrate powerful understanding of things their followers care about. Whatever it is, cults don’t appear spontaneously–their leaders possess some characteristic or history that lends them influence in their followers’ minds before they make the decision to leave everything behind.

On that note, I see two possible explanations for Simon and Andrew’s bizarre behavior.

  1. They were influenced by some supernatural power to follow a man they knew nothing about.
  2. They knew something about Jesus that quelled their natural, healthy hesitancy to follow him anywhere.

The first one is, I think, the most commonly-believed explanation. Movie depictions of this episode often entail some majestic-looking bearded man walking, trance-like, toward Simon and Andrew, and calling their names in a hypnotic voice. They, also trance-like, drop their things and follow him as he continues walking down the lake-shore.

I can’t prove this explanation wrong. It’s plausible. It is, however, lazy. It forgoes any more relatable explanation, or one that might be more useful to one with a healthy skepticism of random, supernatural events. I don’t like such explanations. They don’t jive with what we know to be true about the human condition.

The second one is interesting because, if it’s true, it opens the door to further knowledge about Jesus’ life and influence prior to the beginning of his ministry. We don’t know much about Jesus’ twenties except that he was a carpenter. We don’t know if he had friends, where he lived, or how he spent his time.

Extra-biblical depictions of Jesus during this time tend to skim over it, often alluding to twenty-something Jesus as a sort-of “man in waiting” who knew his ministry was not to begin until later.

But such a depiction isn’t necessarily true. It’s conjecture. It’s possible that Jesus had a full life and was very influential among his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a profound speaker. Maybe he was exceptionally strong or tall or boisterous. Maybe he was a genius (see Luke 2) and engaged others with deep insights about God and the Torah.

What I’m really getting at is the possibility that Jesus was very relatable, and that we really know very little about him. Christians believe he is God, but they also believe he is “fully man.” So could others see in him a person they wanted to be? Could they relate to him? Did his boldness inspire them to live better lives? Did they aspire to be more like him? Did they even think that was possible?

Yes, I think, on all points.

My 2016 election predictions

Last June I predicted Hillary would win the Democratic nomination. Also predicted that Bernie would come close. Also predicted Scott Walker would bore, struggle in the debates, and get nowhere. Also predicted Christie would “either shine or bomb” (funny enough, he sort-of did both).

All of that was correct.

I also predicted Jeb would win the GOP nomination. Oops.

Got lots right, but one big thing wrong. That said, here are my updated predictions.

  • Trump will win in November.
  • We’ll look back and see last week’s FBI statement as the beginning of the end for Hillary. She’ll never poll higher than she does right now.
  • Trump will pick Democrat Michael Flynn for his running-mate. This creates a “unity ticket” that will win over 5-6% of Democrats and seal the deal in several swing states.
  • Of the swing states, Trump will win FL, GA, NC, VA, PA, OH, IN, AZ and NV.
  • Trump’s cabinet will include prominent Democrats and his policies will be generally moderate. He’ll slow down military spending, cut taxes, and travel the world trying to make “deals.”

In general, I’m optimistic on Trump–both his odds of winning and his presidency. I don’t agree with his policies, but I do think he’ll be wildly successful.

I also think Trump is serious about being a “unifier.” My reasons have to do with a speech he gave in Mara-a-Lago after winning super Tuesday. In it, he said this:

I am a unifier. I know people are going to find that a bit hard to believe but believe me, I am a unifier.

Simple. Straightforward. He says stuff like this all the time, right?

Actually, no. Here is Trump being, for the only time ever, fully transparent. That’s significant. When he says “I know people are going to find that a bit hard to believe,” he reveals that he is very aware of how he comes across. He’s aware of what people think about him. He’s not insane. He’s playing a game and has a strong grasp of how he’s perceived.

He never revealed as much before, and, to my knowledge, never revealed as much since. Part of his game is mind-games–he wants to keep everyone questioning. That’s what good negotiators do, right?

Now, if Trump is aware that it’s”hard to believe” he is a unifier, that means he’s going to do something about it. He’s going to make it easier to believe. His Mike Flynn VP pick at the GOP convention will begin that process.

Do I think Trump is an act? That he’s playing everyone, conning the GOP, and lying all around just to win? Yes. But isn’t that what any winner does? Those who truly want to win?

Just some random thoughts. This is me being very transparent–I could be totally wrong and ruin my credibility on these things forever.

Not that I have any credibility on these things to begin with…

My alma mater in the news

…well, maybe not the news, per se. Does The Atlantic count?

Grove City College reports demographic and some other information to the government on a voluntary basis, said its president, Paul McNulty. He said that—even though it doesn’t have to—the college also tries to adhere to the principles of Title IX to serve male and female students equally. “I think a lot of other colleges wish they were in Grove City’s position, because they worry that [government] requirements are going to fundamentally change the direction of the institution,” said McNulty.

“The issue has never been about discrimination,” he said. “We value our independence. We value the fact that we do not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next, and we don’t have to then shoulder the burden of the administration costs associated with those policy initiatives and requirements.”

Long story short, my alma mater (Grove City College) does not accept federal funding and, by implication, cannot accept students who finance their education with federal student loans. They do this on principle for reasons of financial and academic independence–as President McNulty states in the quote above, to “not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next.”

I’m not really sure why this is “controversial,” as the title of the article alleges. Colleges like Grove City College don’t want federal funding, and I’m guessing critics of such colleges’ missions and values don’t want taxpayer dollars to help fund their operations. If anything, the “controversy” is that the government places values-based controls (vs. financial/administrative controls) on colleges who accept federal funding.

Yes, I understand that it seems “controversial” for a college to have rules regarding sexuality and on-campus behavior that are mainstream “discriminatory,” but where does the government’s control end? No student is forced to attend Grove City College (or any college that doesn’t accept federal funding) nor do these independent colleges use taxpayer dollars to further their religiously-oriented missions. Who’s hurt?

Sell solutions, not deliverables

Something I’ve learned since starting a business:

When selling your products or services, focus on your potential customers’ stated problems/painsand not the product or service they think they need. Decide whether you can fulfill their expectations based on whether you can address and solve whatever problem they’re facing–not whether you can deliver the specifications they claim to need.

For example, I recently had a potential client (now an actual client) show me an example of what he wanted–a particular data dashboard for a particular application, similar to the one his predecessor used. He asked if I could recreate that dashboard for him with updated data.

If I were to answer his question directly, it would have been a definite “no.” Truth is, I have no idea how to create that dashboard, nor would I attempt to–it was outdated, cumbersome, and rather unhelpful to him (though he didn’t realize it).

But of course, I didn’t say “no.” I knew what his goals were, and that I could help him get there. So I said exactly this: “I can do much better than that.”

He was impressed. I got the job. They never knew that I couldn’t do exactly what they said they wanted, but it didn’t matter–I knew I could do what they really wanted.

Successful selling is about solving problems and relieving pains. It’s about managing expectations and thinking creativelyIt’s not about doing everything your client says they want, line-by-line, because the truth is: No one can fulfill every client expectation exactly as they initially conceive them.

To be honest, this is rather basic advice. I knew all this before I started selling research. But it means so much more now that I’m in the thick of things. It’s easy to be intimidated by a client’s request when you’re not sure if you have the tools to complete it. Under-delivering is enemy #1, after all. But think long and hard before saying “no.” What is it the client really wants? What problem are they trying to solve? Do you have a solution they never would have thought of–maybe something better, even different, than what they think they need?