Why Do We Do Difficult Things?

Apollo 11 - NASAI’ve been out on book tour for the launch of my new novel, From Nothing. At one of the early talks I began with a simple question: Why do we do difficult things?

I’m not talking about ordinary-difficult things like schlepping yourself to work every day or paying all your bills. I’m talking about really big stuff. Pick a career path. Marry someone. Divorce someone. Start a company. Write a book—without an advance check.

Why do we decide to tackle extraordinarily hard challenges? Why do we embark on the kinds of things that change our lives?

I’m going to give you the answer in just a few more carriage returns, but before I do, think about what your answer might be.

Why do you do exceptionally difficult things?

Is it for money?

Is it for status and ego?

Is it because someone else pressures you to do it?

I think those enticements can play a role, but I don’t think it’s why most of us do difficult things.

I think we do difficult things because we can’t not.

Try repeating that in your head. Read the words “Why do we do difficult things?” Then answer aloud: Because we can’t not.

If you’re not alone, say it rather quietly under your breath, but do say it aloud. If you are alone, shout it from your gut.

Why do we difficult things?

Because we can’t not.

Excellent, I think I heard you that time! You’ll note the purposeful application of a solid double negative. Don’t worry, the grammar police aren’t coming for us, at least not this time.

I want this message to encode in your mind: Because we can’t not.

The topic of my book talk was why I choose to write for what amounts to the tiniest part of my income given the full span of hours invested. The question at hand was why I didn’t spend more of my time on lucrative business projects instead of sitting alone in a room for half my waking hours banging out words without much promise of real financial upside no matter how well I write.

There are obstacles to book distribution at an enterprise scale that are beyond my ability to control. If I chose to write fiction solely for wealth creation, I would be repeatedly disappointed. I would like to be pleasantly surprised by financial reward largely because it meant more people would have read my stories, but I would be foolish to count on it.

To me, it doesn’t matter if I get paid a fortune or less than minimum wage. Most of the money I’ve made in my career was when I wasn’t thinking about money at all. The few times I was thinking primarily about money I made the least. Or none.

I follow the path I can’t ignore. I do what I need to do, and the rewards follow or they don’t.

Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.

I have learned that this applies to business, to art, and to human relationships. The principle is always the same.

Certainly money is a part of the equation. For some people, it’s a very big part of the equation. In my experience, when it’s most of the equation, you’ll see in front of you a very unhappy person—whether he has a lot or a little.

When the reason for doing things is unbalanced, most everything begins to go haywire. That actually happens to the main character in my new book, Victor Selo. He sees people going for the money and only the money. The world falls apart.

Why do I sit in front of this grimy keyboard pounding out sentences when I could be helping start or buy or sell another company?

I like money. I just decided I knew how much I needed, and what I wasn’t willing to do in search of more. I needed to return to who I was when my wife met me: a guy who made up goofy stuff and told it to other people (I borrow that line liberally from George Carlin). Minimum wage or a bestseller, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t not write.

I want you to consider doing the same. I want you to do whatever it is that you cannot-not do. Ah, there’s that double negative again! This author will go far.

Please do what you cannot-not do.

Why not stick with the easy stuff? Isn’t it difficult enough to get through each day and week, pay the bills, avoid unnecessary conflict with your boss, co-workers, acquaintances, and family?

Yes, all of our routine tasks can be exhausting. It’s easy to let them take over our lives. Here’s what those debilitating punch lists obscure:

Time is precious. Time is perishable. Our lives are at last defined by how we play out the clock.

Self-definition is a choice. It happens to be a very hard choice. It takes place at those invisible forks in the road we too often only see in hindsight. When we force ourselves to look ahead, our choices become constructively active, not passive, even when ultimately deemed wrong.

The intrinsic rewards of courageously owning a cannot-not do agenda are unique to each of us. If we don’t own that choice, it is made for us. Some people call that one of life’s regrets. I think of it more as ignoring the call to unique opportunity.

Why do we do difficult things? Because we can’t not.

Another way to go astray and release control of the clock is to lose faith in our honest self-awareness or pure acknowledgment of our true abilities. Remember, I am not talking about the things we might want to do. I am talking about the things we cannot-not do. Those two forces might align, but not always. Self-deception can cloud our best choices.

Here’s a confession: I was a theater student in college. I was also a philosophy student so it wasn’t a total waste of time and money. I had a very Russian acting teacher one semester, who took me aside and said in a thick accent, “You know what, Kenneth G, this acting, you know why I do it?”

Okay, she didn’t say Kenneth G, that reference comes years later, but it kind of works in this context. Go with me.

“Because you’re good at it?” I answered her.

“That is beside the point,” she replied in English that could have been Russian. “I do it because there is nothing else I can do and still be me. The difference is, I think there are other things you can do and still be you, so do that, and you will spare yourself a life of misery.”

I thought about it and said: “Is this a nice way of telling me I’m not good at acting?”

She smiled and nodded with that Russian piercing insight. “You see, Kenneth G, you understand so well. Do something else that you cannot-not do. What we should do is what we must only do—because we can’t not.”

That’s when I knew I had to write.

What about you?

_______________

Phone: NASA (Apollo 11)

Politically Incorrect Is Harder Than You Think

Lenny BruceThere’s something eerie about the Facebook world-view, which challenges us to live publicly out loud, to reveal ourselves globally and without filters, as we communicate in real-time our every thought and action, trivial or serious.

Mark Zuckerberg, at a relatively young age, has suggested the world will be a better place if we live more open lives, if we have no fears about what is private and what is public about us.

That’s quite a counterintuitive notion given our past, and one that has made him enormously wealthy in its adoption at various levels among a billion or so human beings across every settled zone of Planet Earth. Curiously, I find the thundering rhetoric around the U.S. Presidential Election has taken some of that “openness ideal” into the still largely uncharted territory of political correctness.

Here are two opposing views in the argument:

Am I being unnaturally confined if I allow myself to be restricted by a set of language norms accepted broadly as being politically correct?

*** or ***

Am I a more authentic person for saying whatever is on my mind absent artificially imposed rules somehow intended to protect the feelings of others but violating my first amendment rights?

Now consider the underlying question: Are these two viewpoints in fact diametrically opposed? Is someone a hypocrite if in public he speaks politely and without offensive language, yet out of the public eye makes racist slurs among friendlies? Or is that individual living more candidly by saying whatever is on his mind via stream of consciousness as long as his expressions align with his actual belief sets?

Said another way, if someone isn’t particularly sympathetic to embracing social diversity, are we as a society better off with that potentially upsetting speech articulated or kept silent? Those trying to stomp out political correctness might suggest we all are better off saying whatever is on our minds, but I am going to suggest that this has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness. Bigotry is bigotry. Political correctness does not ensure civility when it is unwillingly imposed; it simply masks a dangerous expression from public view in the name of conflict avoidance.

Of course all of us have the ultimate hypocritical alternative: to speak cordially in public bound by understood norms of political correctness but then go hog-wild and say what we want anonymously online no matter how vile it is, convincing ourselves that hiding in the shadows as we spew is further entitlement in our right to free speech. To his credit, Zuckerberg mostly solved this by requiring Facebook posts to be signed under true identities, but, as we know, if you want to spew, Facebook is not the only game in town.

If you believe a wall should be built between the U.S. and Mexico, then go ahead and say it, but don’t think you have beaten political correctness by blurting that out. I don’t think the wall should be built. I feel in no way restricted by political correctness. I am comfortable saying what’s on my mind and I also find it pretty easy not to be offensive or threatening in my remarks. If you think the wall should be built but are filtering your public opinion because of the chokehold political correctness has around your vocabulary, you are deceiving yourself. Political correctness is not your problem. Your unwillingness to come clean publicly on your controversial stance is your problem. No one can liberate you by removing the filter. You are what you stand for, no matter what you say, and when you say what you stand for, you are no better than what you are saying.

Perhaps we are we missing the point of why political correctness was challenged in the first place. Being politically incorrect and saying whatever flows from your lips no matter how hurtful it might be are not the same thing, not even close. It is critical that we put in context where the modern politically incorrect movement began, long before it was labeled. It was a reaction by comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor to exposing the hypocrisy of what was said behind your back, not in front of your face. To twist that into an intolerant free-for-all that justifies hurtful speech or even hate speech, is the opposite of what these language pioneers set out to accomplish.

There was a time in this nation, largely the second half of the 20th century, when it was brave to say the unsayable because someone was trying to discourage hate, not justify it. Here’s what Lenny said:

“Every group every system has a set of values and morals, and when you get outside those, then the alarms ring. I was politically incorrect to 95% of the country; luckily my 5% had the bread to come see me.”

Lenny also said:

“Freedom of speech is a two-way street, man. You have a right to say whatever you want and the Boss has a right to tell people to arrest you.”

Compare that to the recent words of Presidential candidate Trump:

“I don’t frankly have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

And more recently from Trump:

“And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African-Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”

Is it fair to compare a groundbreaking stand-up comic from a half century ago with the current GOP candidate for President of the United States? Probably not, but if you don’t see a difference in how each of them applies the need to speak freely to make a point, we probably aren’t going to agree on when it is justified and makes sense. In Lenny’s case, he is embracing irony to open our eyes to self-awareness. In Trump’s case, he is playing to disenfranchisement to stir up resentment.

Bill Maher called his original show Politically Incorrect to make a point about the absurdities of covering up hypocrisy with language. He has offended many, and he is anything but always right in his opinions, but his intention is to make us think harder about what we say and do. If you have a point to make in the name of a lightning rod that takes us to better thinking  like Lenny, like George, like Richard — have at it, but be ready to suffer the consequences of being misunderstood if your point is not clear. Samantha Bee is doing an amazing job carrying the torch now. She is hugely politically incorrect and a beacon of light, afraid of nothing. All of these people carry a core message of love. If you carry a core message of love and have something to say that makes me work harder at understanding my failings, have at it, but don’t think you’re doing me any favors by calling me one name behind my back and being polite when we meet face to face. If that’s political correctness, we have failed at diversity. If you’re a bigot, we’ll know.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Lenny Bruce. Let’s keep his torch burning brightly by proving we know the difference between stepping beyond the bounds of political correctness to make a point and blathering on insensitively about how we wish we could say what was on our mind but somehow feel repressed. If you have something to say, say it, then stand by it. If it makes the world a better place, you’ll have said the right thing no matter whom you may offend in the short-term. I’m guessing if what you have to say really matters, it won’t be offensive in the least.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

The Parable of the Cold Burrito

George Carlin - A Place for My Stuff“Do people do that with you? Offer you some food that, if you don’t eat it, they’re only going to ‘throw it away.’ Well, doesn’t that make you feel dandy? Here’s something to eat, Dave, hurry up, it’s spoiling… something for you, Angela, eat quickly, that green pod is moving… here, Bob, eat this before I give it to an animal.'” — George Carlin

No one can describe the unusual color and shape of discarded food left for transformation into yuck quite like my hero, George Carlin. And yet, often when I think of his incomparable Ice Box Man routine, I can’t help but associate the bit with business opportunity waiting to be discovered.

No, I’m not talking about mold morphing into penicillin, which isn’t a bad analogy. I’m talking about something I like to call the Parable of the Cold Burrito.

You know, the Cold Burrito—that really great burrito you picked up at your favorite burrito place about a week ago. The one with all the things you like in it— eggs, cheese, potatoes, salsa, the incredibly fresh tortilla— the one you couldn’t wait to gobble down, only it was so filling you only ate half, then put the other half in the refrigerator. Then you forgot about your leftovers, and like the Ice Box man, rediscovered it in less glory.

Perhaps it’s not as dire as Carlin might describe it. There could be life in it. That’s up to you to decide.

You have two choices—toss it in the garbage and be done with it, or see if a little creativity can bring it back to life. I guess there is a third option, leave it in the back of the refrigerator to continue full metamorphosis, but I’m going to take a leap of faith and say you know better than that (or maybe you have been warned about ‘selective obscurity’ by your spouse).

Let’s say you pick choice #2. You remember how good it was when it wasn’t a Cold Burrito—it was a warm, wonderful burrito, but you aren’t at the place where you bought it. You unwrap it, add some other ingredients you like, some onion, a different kind of cheese, a few spices from the pantry. You carefully wrap it in foil, put it in the oven for a while around 350 degrees (not a quick soggy fix in the microwave), then retrieve it and add some shredded lettuce and chopped tomato, a little avocado. What do you have now? Something that no one else wanted, something you weren’t even sure you wanted, something that is not the same as it was, but something that is really quite good in the way you have helped it change.

Okay, it’s not a perfect parable, but you get the idea. The Cold Burrito is something you want that no one else wanted—something in which you saw potential, that easily could have been scrapped— something that began with someone else’s creativity, was forgotten for a while, then became something you reinvented. That’s a story I have told a lot of people asking me how to find hidden opportunity.

The Cold Burrito is the opportunity you see in a company asset that no one else does. It’s the dog project no one wants, so you do. It’s the nasty problem no one is willing to tackle, so you are.

Everyone wants the fresh burrito! How hard is that to bring to market? It’s already new! It’s already fresh! It’s hot out of the oven. It sells itself. Do you think you are going to make your mark doing what everyone else wants to do? And can do? No, you want the opportunity no one else wants, no one else sees, something that takes courage and vision.

Sometimes the Cold Burrito is an abandoned brand that was once popular, but suffered neglect following mass harvest. Sometimes it can be the shelved initiative that was once loved, but now the research says it’s not going to work, but you know the research is wrong. Sometimes it’s the blank page, the blue sky initiative that terrifies everyone, so they run to the latest brand extension of what’s working now—but not you! You know trying to put something where there is nothing is hugely risky, but with risk comes reward, so you put up your hand and say give me that Cold Burrito, even though it’s invisible and I can’t see it. I’m joining a team that is willing to invent it. If I fail I can live with that, but I would rather succeed trying the untried than live under the radar with tiny fragments of credit for the ordinary and easy.

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, the company was moribund, the once great products were ordinary, the stock was in the toilet— but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the goodwill in the Apple brand that needed an infusion of passion, detail, and excellence. When Michael Eisner came to Disney, the company was in the gun sights of arbitrage, long without a hit, the animators on pause—but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the creative legacy of Walt ready to be introduced to a new generation of families with music, characters, and stories. The Variety Show on network TV was dead, then there was Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. Friendster stalled, then there was Facebook. A lot of music executives thought guitar bands were a passing fad, then came The Beatles.

Okay, those were ice-cold burritos in the hands of master chefs, but smaller examples are probably sitting on your desk right now. Or your neighbor’s desk. Can you see them? Are you looking? They may be old ideas made new, or new ideas unproven, but they are the opportunities conventional wisdom tells you to avoid at all costs. I say embrace them.

Carlin made us laugh because he saw what we all saw, but he observed something else, that when revealed, offered stark reflection within its silliness. Try the same thing in business, perhaps absent the silliness, though without taking yourself too seriously. We can all see the Cold Burrito for what it is, but only a few of us can see it for what it can be. Try risking that, and the results might be career changing, even life changing.

You want the Cold Burrito. It can be your ticket to the big time.

Warp Factor Ten: The New Cruise Control

“Here’s a tune that’s really moving fast. When I say fast, it was recorded at 9 o’clock this morning. At 12 noon, it was No. 15. At 3 o’clock, it was the No. 1 sound in town. And now it’s a golden oldie!” — George Carlin, FM & AM (1971)

What a difference a month makes. A week. Even a few hours.

Prior to its first day of public trading, Facebook was pure glamor. Individual investors who could not get into the IPO were camped out in the lobbies of retail brokerages. Where they couldn’t get shares prior to the first day open, some were moving cash into their accounts ready to buy at the commencement of trading. We loved Facebook, all 900 million of us with an account. We may have heard a bit of light background noise about how its advertising wasn’t working all that well for some clients like GM, or whether the company was making enough strides in mobile, but few people listened. It was frenzy. We had to have it. Then it all changed.

The question is, what changed? Did the facts change? Did the market conditions change? Did the technology change? In 24 hours? Sure, there were analyst reports that didn’t find their way to everyone, but how many individual minds would those have changed, for the people who had to have it? Not many, I suspect. One Wall Street Journal story that especially caught my attention noted: “… a 30-year-old actor in Toronto, bought 15 shares of Facebook on its opening day. Before then, he had bought just one stock, yet saw the market as a place to make his savings rise in the long run. Now he feels burned.”This fellow is upset, yet his investment strategy was to own two individual stocks in minimal quantities to increase his net worth. As they say on SNL, really?

For my mind battle, Facebook was as exciting and pioneering a company before the IPO as it was after—the critical question was whether enough people considered what its stock was actually worth. We like to believe in fundamentals, until we don’t. What changed was the hangover. We sobered up and asked the questions we should have asked after we acted. Opinion reversed in this instance to an unprecedented polar opposite, a trend we now see too often.

Around the turn of the millennium, we experienced astonishingly rapid adoption of the commercial internet. The public couldn’t wait to buy stock in this emerging set of companies. Earnings be damned, this was the new economy! We used new online brokerage platforms at our fingertips to day-trade nascent listings on something called momentum. About a year later came the dot-bomb implosion and we couldn’t dump these equities fast enough. As soon as mass opinion declared most of them worthless, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the mid 2000s, popular opinion declared home real estate values going in one direction, to the stratosphere. Credit was easy, because with prices rising, properties could be flipped quickly, debt retired and profits tabulated with presumed certainty. When home prices crested and credit markets began to freeze, homeowners found themselves “underwater,” owing more on properties than they were worth. It happened that fast. People asked themselves how a home they bought for $600,000 could be worth less than $200,000 when only a year ago it was assessed at $400,000. How did prices go up so quickly, then down so quickly, then lock up without some form of fair warning?

JP Morgan Chase escaped the mortgage-backed securities meltdown and CDO liquidity crisis largely unscathed, only to follow-up this year with a series of disastrous derivatives trades that resulted in billions of dollars in losses. The company’s CEO, James Dimon, went on record saying the bank’s strategy was “flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.” Does that sound like a dependable financial institution gone temporarily astray, or a speculative gambling pit operating without normalized controls?

How do we make choices in a world where assessment can change this rapidly and radically? What is a grounded opinion?

Is the public manipulated? You bet we are. Witch’s brew opportunism is all around us. Are well-meaning individuals subject to baffling contradiction and confusion? To my knowledge it has never been any other way. The problem now is the fever pitch, the speed at which information and misinformation travels, the global pace of relentless throbbing that blinks and bubbles and burns and overwhelms our better judgment. We act because the parade is leaving town and the horns are blazing, not necessarily because we have decided it’s a good parade celebrating a cause we wish to trumpet. We don’t want to get left behind, until we too late discover there’s no place like home.

How fast is fast? In the original Star Trek series which debuted in 1966 and was set in the 24th century, Gene Roddenberry envisioned Warp Factor One as travel at the speed of light. Any kid who had taken high school physics got the joke, but for sheer late night discussion it seemed a decent enough way to talk about speed in the extreme. Warp Factor Ten was considered unachievable, a “purely theoretical” value, yet in the later sequels, Warp Factor Ten was used all the time, no big deal. I don’t think stretching of the metaphor over time was accidental. When fantasy portrays the speed of light no longer as a milestone, any definition of fast requires new parameters. I think we’re getting there, or at least the hyperbole is catching up with our perceived experiences that don’t involve beaming up our bodies, just harnessing some constancy in our opinions.

The 24 hour news cycle is well understood by those who create it, so much so that top public relations firms often suggest just waiting for a worse story to wipe out your current bad news. Rapid and seismic change has been a recurring theme in this blog since its launch, where the patron Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus now have us wondering if you can even step in the same river once.

We like, we don’t like. We know we are fickle, but we allow conflicted voices all around us to vacuum us in one direction, then whiplash us in another. We become certain something is worth our hard-earned money, then we see our money vaporized and want it back. With all the experience we have around vast shifts in sentiment, why do we still allow ourselves to act before we have enough facts to make a reasonable judgment?

Robert Burgelman, one of my former board members who teaches business strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, likes to define the shift between strategic thinking and consequence as the moment when valuable resources are committed to action. In a company, that’s when you move from the planning and consideration phase of a project to the substantial deployment of capital—financial, material, and human. These decisions are not trivial. There are experts involved, and even then, too many times they are wrong. In your own life, it’s when you go from liking a company for what it does to investing your savings in an equity stake. That too is a big leap, one you want to think about very hard.

Indeed, creative destruction is a norm, we know we have to move fast or risk missing opportunity. How do we apply the essence of urgency, the realities of internet time, to factor out hype and not be shifted into a higher gear than makes sense?

For starters, don’t be afraid to take an extra breath. Be appropriately careful with your convictions. It’s admirable to be resolute, but if facts are going to be relative, how really certain can you be today when someone else with a vested interest is bound to change the story tonight? Living in a world where unformed argument too convincingly sells itself as conventional wisdom can make skepticism a virtue. I am not one to resist change, but when I listen to opinion, I want convincing debate, not anxious pressure. Opinions can be interesting, facts are better. When you don’t understand something, never let others make you feel inadequate because “You Don’t Get It” and the clock is not on your side. You might be getting it just fine.

Your pace of decision should be your own. If you don’t like the story, don’t buy the book solely because someone stacked the deck with a stockpile of boilerplate reviews. Opinions will keep changing at lightning pace. Anticipate change in the assessment of change; you can bet on that because you have evidence. Beyond that, there’s a reason they call it the cloud.

Facebook just might beam itself into a valuation you wish you could have seen coming. Mortals like us can no more see the future than travel at the speed of light. If you want to win long-term in a race against noise, listen more closely to what’s under the noise. Cruise control at top speed will never be as comfortable as the manual suggests.