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The Excitement (and Challenge) of the 21st Century

Back in my father’s time, and in his father’s time, it was pretty common to get a job that lasted your entire life. You went to work for a single company and often did the same thing for 40+ years. Then you retired and the company took care of you. Sound great? Terrible? Well, maybe the security sounds great—but the repetition sounds terrible.


Now repetitive tasks are being outsourced and automated, companies are having to become leaner and more flexible to compete, and the old careers are disappearing every year because of vast structural changes to the economy. The good news (and the bad news) is that the days of brain-dead repetitive jobs are over. Kaput. Life has become less of a cruise on a riverboat and more of a white water kayak ride. It takes quick thinking, commitment, and skill.


But it also requires you to be experts at something and pretty damn good at everything else. You may able to cook a tasty meal or solve equations in your head; but if you can’t balance a checkbook, ask a stranger for a favor, do an effective presentation, design a flyer, upload a video to YouTube, write a compelling article, or help someone out; you aren’t going to be able to compete effectively against those who can.


We went from an economy of generalists to specialists. Now you have to do both.


Go ahead. Make someone’s day.

Many years ago, I remember finding a pink photocopied “Certificate of Appreciation” in my inbox at work. And then I noticed the same pink paper sticking out of the inbox of every one of my co-workers.




We all like appreciation, but it loses its power when it feels mechanical—and it can become very mechanical. When someone tells me about a recent accomplishment, I find myself automatically saying “Congratulations!” or “Great job!” But it feels more like courtesy than praise.


We could all use a little encouragement. There are plenty of voices in our day telling us we’re not good enough, not nice enough, not fast enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough—and so on. The voices of our acquaintances, the voices of the media, or worst of all, the voice in our own heads.


Earnest encouragement costs so little, and it can really make someone’s day. If you want people to really feel your appreciation for them, here are a few tips (and they don’t cost a penny).


  • Show it. Let them hear it in your voice. When someone tells you they finished their first marathon or got the promotion they were angling for, show your enthusiasm! “You what?!?! Wow!”
  • Surprise them. Don’t praise them when they are expecting it. Grab your significant other while you’re in the grocery store and tell them how much joy they bring to your life. Don’t wait till your friend’s birthday to tell them how important their friendship is to you. Send them an email out of the blue.
  • Be specific. Tell them why you like them, why you are proud of them, why they inspire you, and mean it. Take a couple minutes and really think about it. Tell them how they make your life better.
  • Thank them for the thing that no one thanks them for. So what if “it’s their job”? They work hard at it and for very little recognition. Everybody takes pride in what they do regardless of what other people think of it. Stop and thank the security guard standing by the door for the hard work he does. Tell the barista how much you appreciate her sunny attitude.
  • Make a little effort. Draw a picture. Bring them a cup of coffee. Write a funny little poem. But them a flower. (Okay, that one would cost you a penny.)


Get into the appreciating habit. I regularly compliment complete strangers on what their wearing, on their nice smile, on their beautiful children. Expecting praise that never arrives will make you grumpy and resentful. Don’t wait for recognition. Give it. Give it. Give it.


And in case no one else has mentioned it today, THANK YOU for doing the hard work you do and being the wonderful person you are.


The Competition Is Brutal

In navigating your life, you are sometimes tempted to go the “safe” route. You think that doing something less interesting and exciting will bring you security that your “scary” choice can’t offer.


But there is no security. And this is your life.


And what’s more, the “safe” route is not even safe. Consider this: the great majority of people have already chosen the safe route. There are millions of people who have decided to compromise their passions for what they think might be security. Millions. The competition is brutal.


We live in an economy that rewards passion and commitment, and punishes mediocrity. It wasn’t always like that, but automation and outsourcing are eliminating all the really “safe” repetitive, brain-dead jobs.


Given the challenges we face, we need people who are smart and passionate. We need people—desperately—who love and care about what they do; whether it’s being a cook, a lawyer, an accountant, or a musician. We need the dentist who loves his work and cares deeply about what he does. We don’t need one single dentist who never wanted to be a dentist. 


Following your greatest passions and interests is not only intrinsically rewarding, it’s what the world needs you to do.


What to do when there’s no place to hide

When Mitt Romney stated that 47% of the American population believed that they were “victims” entitled to government handouts, he believed he was speaking to a small group of people in a private home, not to hundreds of millions of people all over the world who were justifiably horrified by his remarks. Romney grew up in an age where you could get away with this kind of thing. People were unlikely to be recording every word you said, and even if they were, they were unable to publish them to the eyes of the entire planet. Instantly. For free.


I can relate. Just a few years back, I couldn’t have told you what most of my high school friends were doing, where they lived, or whether they had children. Now I am up to date on what they had for breakfast this morning and what they thought of last night’s American Idol. When I mention a funny sound that my car is making; friends in Japan, France, and Mexico read about it before I tell my girlfriend.


With any technological revolution there’s bound to be resistance, and the whole phenomenon of our private lives becoming public is no exception. “Be careful what you put on Facebook!” people admonish us. “It’s going to be seen by your employers, your colleagues, your family, your friends . . . everybody!”


Good luck. If you are here to participate in the world, this is practically hopeless. It is the Romney idea—this idea that somehow you will be able to hide who you are, that you can have multiple selves and craft each individual persona for the appropriate audience, that you could run for president of a country where you feel contempt for half the population. It has become impossible to do this, so why try?


Look. You’re amazing. And there are thousands of people who will respect, adore, and want you just the way you are. There are employers who are searching this minute for someone exactly like you. There are people who would love to have you as a best friend. And if you’re single, there are loads of attractive people who want to be in a long meaningful relationship with someone just like you. Don’t you want to meet those people? If so, you’re in luck. It’s easier than ever for them to find you.


You will find your existence in this world a much more fulfilling one by embracing who you are, by declaring it, by letting others know and not giving a damn about what everybody thinks. The ones who need you will be grateful for your honesty, and everyone else can move on looking for their soul mates. 


You may not get to be the President of the United States, but you’ll get to be the extraordinary, unique, and gifted person you are.


The Tyranny of Perfect

My girlfriend knows practically every celebrity out there. She can recognize them, tell you who they are dating/married-to/recently-broken-up-with, and rattle off the names of their children. She knows I am pretty ignorant about such things, so when we are watching television, I sometimes try to make her laugh by pretending to recognize an actor. I make up a fake name. “Oh wow! That’s Chinter Sejysuff!” “It’s nice to see Cergh DiFext out of rehab.”


The tricky part about the game is that, for me, the name has to be completely unlike any other name I have ever heard. Names like “Chippy LaRue” or “Hugo Bottlebuns” are far too derivative and familiar. It has to be—has to be—a newly-minted and utterly nonsensical string of sounds. The names are painstakingly wrought in my head syllable-by-syllable; first letting my mind create a hailstorm of suggestions; then rejecting, tweaking, and discarding them until I’m 51% satisfied.


It ain’t that easy. Go ahead. Try it.


Of course I miss a lot of the TV show while doing this, but it is usually a more entertaining activity for me than watching the show. You see, the dialogue of a TV show is perfect. It is carefully crafted to serve the plot, to communicate the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and to entertain. And when I say “perfect,” I mean terrible—predictable, hackneyed, and utterly unlike human speech. It sounds like it was written by some ghastly software that spits the stuff out at a hundred pages per second.


All of this begs the question: How do you get to special? How do you get to unique? How do you create something—a poem, a product, a turn of phrase, a recipe—that escapes the gravitational pull of the surrounding mediocrity?


It’s not enough to come up perfect. Perfect often sucks. It is too often the optimal solution given the challenge and constraints arrived at after having carefully benchmarked the competition. Beethoven would never have written the “Eroica” after studying the compositions of his contemporaries. DaVinci never would have created the Mona Lisa by going for “perfect.” And if Steve Jobs hadn’t relentlessly pushed himself beyond “perfect,” he would have worked for Dell.


Perfect is too often perfectly mediocre. It is an arrival—and therefore as dull as a bus station.


It would be nice to be regularly struck by the lightning of inspiration; but if this doesn’t happen to you as often as you’d like (it certainly doesn’t to me), you can fake the process pretty well by just being patient with the problem. Reject, one after another, all the less-than-perfect solutions. And when the perfect solution finally presents itself—and this is the trick—reject that one too. Instead, go one more. Hold out for one with a little more interest, a little more of a twist.


Make it a habit, and you could be as great an innovator as the legendary Sheldrick Tinnter.


No, no! Not Sheldrick. Shedrick . . . Skemder . . . Skort . . That’s it! Skort Hyrref.