Citizen, Human

How are we to live?

How does one find joy in troubled times? How are we to live, when existential threats such as a pandemic virus disrupt our day-to-day activities and curtail our ability to enjoy our favorite activities?  How do we keep going when an unknown, hard-to-quantify threat to our health lurks in the shadows?

Some words from C.S. Lewis have surfaced that, despite being written in 1948 regarding a different existential threat, are inspiring to read:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

As Brad Feld noted on his blog, one could easily rewrite that last paragraph to apply to us now:

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a virus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things, but with social distancing in the near term to slow it down—working from home, teaching remotely, reading, listening to music on our stereos, bathing the children, exercising at home, chatting to our friends over a video conference—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about viruses. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Citizen, Father, Leadership, Marketer, Musician

Discovering competence

Most of us have been in situations where we arrive on a scene, especially when joining a new group, and learn that something is going terribly wrong. The Boy Scout group planning an activity is disorganized. The band uniforms to distribute are all in a giant unsorted pile. The last guy wasn’t enforcing the rules so violations are commonplace. The previous leadership didn’t put key systems in place to make it easier to make decisions. So you must decide whether to let it rot, or whether to step forward and exert your will to course correct.

But sometimes, you discover competence. The people in the group you’ve joined have already figured things out. Processes are in place and they work. There are precedences which guide behavior, or a positive culture focused on getting the job done. Inventory is organized; leaders are stepping up, setting examples, and giving direction; exceptions are flagged and handled. Sure there are problems, but they are identified, triaged, and assigned an owner. The primary decision is not whether to help, it’s to decide where and how you can contribute to them moving faster and being more successful.

Don’t let that joy of discovering competence go unacknowledged. Remind the competent that they’ve come a long way and are doing a great job. Give hearable praise about why what they’re doing is making a difference. Because there’s a good chance they’ve forgotten while they target the blemishes and try to keep the positive energy moving forward.

Human, Leadership, Marketer

Puzzles

When your brain is fully engaged in a challenging puzzle, the rest of the world can fade away.

It could be a pencil and paper puzzle, like a cryptic crossword clue or “who owns the zebra” logic puzzle. It could be the situational puzzles that come up in complex board games, like how am I going to get the most points from these three moves, or which sequence of cards can I play to win on this turn. Or it could be work puzzles, like how to structure a fluid organization, hire and fire the right people, and what processes to put in place to get the most efficiency out your employees.

Whatever the challenge, fully grabbing your brain’s attention and finding flow is enough to melt away the worries, the stress, the what-if’s, and other chatter that can occupy thinking bandwidth and negatively affect your mood. Even if a temporary respite, it’s better at bringing joy than any drug could be.

Father, Marketer

New room

The first grader looked up at his father. “Good luck in your New Room today, Daddy,” he said.

The child knew what it was like to go into a New Room, having done so both for kindergarten and for first grade. It meant new friends to make. New authority figures to respect. New toys to play with. A new place to sit. New opportunities for fun.

It also meant unfamiliarity and worry. It meant being unsure of what to do next. It would be re-learning routines and adapting to a different culture. It would be finding your place all over again.

“Thanks, buddy,” said the father, as he headed into the joys and uncertainty of his new job.

Father, Human, Marketer

Savoring the announcement

When you have really great news that you want to share with everyone, you’re just bursting at the seams to get it out into the world. They’re engaged! He got the job! She got her acceptance letter! We’re expecting! Whatever it is, you probably want to blast it out to the world all at once and bask in everyone’s congratulations.

But there’s a calm before the storm. It’s a brief period for us to sit back and enjoy that emotion of triumph. Call it “congratulating ourselves first.” It’s a moment of reflection that’s worth taking, both to acknowledge the big win while also staying humble as we remember all the steps leading up to this point.

Once you start taking the victory lap — and yes, you deserve that victory lap of friends’ adulation and positive energy — it becomes more about the news itself than about you. So make sure to claim that joy quietly before the parade starts.

Friend, Human

The unexpected death of a friend

Of course there’s not much joy in death, especially an abrupt passing that gives no one time to prepare. Grief and mourning are natural and necessary. No one ever said a joyful life wouldn’t have moments of sadness, moments of outrage, and moments of despair. We each go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and at our own pace. That cycle is needed to get back to joy.

And there is joy, hiding behind those clouds. We celebrate our friend’s life. We see how the gap created from the friend’s sudden passing starts to affect those of us left behind. We feel our friend’s communities draw closer together. We are reminded of how precious our lives and friends are. We strive to think better, to do better, to be better, in our friend’s name.

It’s like little sparks of goodness, created from the friend’s transition, are now fanning out into the world and land on people to nudge them a little closer towards happiness and bringing joy into the world. (Fans of The Good Place will recognize this idea.)

Find those sparks and cherish them, and look for them in the darkness.

Husband, Musician

Admiration for amateurs

Sometimes we’ll see a next-door-neighbor type everyman doing something — for their job, as a hobby, in an instructional video  — and think, “That’s easy, I could do that.” Or even, “They’re screwing that up; I’d be much better.” Entire TV series and YouTube channels, from gameshows to reality shows, are partially based on this concept. Can you believe he didn’t solve the puzzle? Why did she make that terrible decision? I wouldn’t screw that up!

But sometimes, you see someone you know accomplishing something, and you think, “Whoa. I could never do that.”

Like your wife painstakingly detailing the frets and strings on the guitar-shaped cookies that she’s making for the Rock of Ages middle school musical bake sale, “just because” she’s learned how to do it now and it’s fun.

Or your son, casually recording himself playing a portion of a complicated solo marimba piece that he’s working on. “Is this for an audition or something?” Nope – it’s just the next challenge for him and he wants to learn how to do it to get better.

We all know we’re good at a lot of things, from the career-defining to the trivial. And we can appreciate when “professionals” catch their Super Bowl footballs, sing their Met operas, bake their British Baking Show cakes, and otherwise perform at a high 99th percentile level that gets them on those fields, stages, and programs.

But there’s joy in admiring that mastery up close and personal, where you can see it developing iteration after iteration, and truly appreciate the work that it takes to get there.

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