The “Aha!” Moment

When you’ve been staring at a clue like “First of cubs housed in lion building’s storage bin (8)” on and off for a couple mornings…

…let’s see, ‘first of cubs’ is probably the letter C, and that goes inside a word that means ‘lion building’ … what the hell is a lion’s building? a den? a pride something? do they mean like at the zoo? Okay, forget that, let’s look at the definition part… the 8-letter answer is ‘storage bin,’ like what? a garbage can? bother…

and then, suddenly, you realize the answer in a flash.  Aha!  Got it, you bastard cruciverbalist who constructed this cryptic crossword.

Cryptic clues can be confounding to look at at first, and may take a little bit of instruction and a lot of practice before you can solve them regularly, but they are so rewarding to your brain every time you get one right.  The lateral thinking required can mentally tie you up in knots trying to bend, twist, and mangle the words in front of you until you shape it into an answer that you immediately know is correct.  There’s no catchall approach that solves each clue; you have to keep plugging away, trying to keep the definition separate from the wordplay, until suddenly everything clicks.  The dopamine rush when that happens can be anything from a half-smile to a fist pumping YEAH! when the answer comes to you. It’s one of many reasons I crave doing a good cryptic crossword, preferably with a tall mug of foamy tea by my side and nowhere to be.

This is part of the resurgence of interest in Escape the Room style franchises. Everyone loves to feel that rush when you solve a puzzle and feel smart. “Aha! We did it!”

(Oh, you didn’t get the answer to that cryptic?  Well, it’s one of the words in this post, if that helps.)

Human, Musician

Conservation of Creativity

Every once in a while, we can get in a “creativity consumption” kick.  Binge watching a TV series, or getting engrossed in playing a particularly creative video game that tells a story with you as the hero.  It’s not all electronic, either; I know I can easily get sucked into a book series and then be trapped reading til 2 a.m. because I want to inject the whole story directly into my veins like a junkie jonesing for another fix.

At times like that, you’re oddly out of balance.  You’re taking and not giving back.

You fix the balance by adding creativity back to the world.  Making music. Writing a blog post. Crafting, whether it be with Legos, with yarn, with clay, or with that oversized cardboard box from your latest Amazon purchase. Even sitting and thinking can give birth to creative thoughts that restore the balance.

The balance is important because the creativity you consume fuels what you create. You get ideas. You see how things work (or fail). You imitate and improve. You admire and try to get better.

Likewise, the process of creation powers your appreciation for what you later consume. You didn’t really think about how hard it was to write that story until you tried to write your own. Or that watercolor. Or that preternatural soccer move. Or that guitar picking.

The best way to break the cognitive bias of the Dunning-Kruger effect is to develop enough ability to recognize your lack of ability, enough to demolish your illusory superiority and return to a state of childlike awe of those who really are experts.  And, like all children looking up to a role model, strive to be as good as them ‘when you grow up.’

And that means consuming more creative. And creating more for others to consume.

Marketer, Musician


In his magnificent book On Writing, Stephen King describes makes the amusingly accurate claim that writing is basically telepathy.  “All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation,” he offers.  As an example, he points out that the book is scheduled to be published in late 2000, and that that makes you the reader

…somewhere downstream on the timeline from me… but you’re quite likely in your own far-seeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages.  […]

So let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting.  WE’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem; if we can still read Dickens, Shakespeare, and (with the help of a footnote or two) Herodotus, I think we can manage the gap between 1997 and 2000.  And here we go — actual telepathy in action.  You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move.  Neither, most likely, do yours.

He then goes on to prove it by describing a table covered with a red cloth, and a cage on the table with a white rabbit that has a numeral 8 on its back in blue ink, and then dissects how he’s transmitted this image to your brain, even if we fill in our own details.

But by that point I’m already hooked. Telepathy! Who knew? I’m writing thoughts right now at my desk, and they’re being beamed directly into your brain by whatever Black Mirror has commanded your attention right now.  The time-shift doesn’t matter; you are literally able to read my mind.

Writing, for me, is like music; I’d make a career of it if I could, but economic forces and skills with more powerful earning potential have relegated such pursuits to leisure time hobbies. Still, I continue learning more about how to sing, and about how to write… and the best way to excel at either hobby is the same way to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.  This may not be the few thousand words a day that King advises for the serious writer-in-training, but it doesn’t matter — telepathy is an amazing trick, and one I want to keep trying to master.

Homeowner, Husband

Yard Work

I admit, I was once a fan of yard work, but it’s fallen by the wayside.  With so many other interesting distractions — you know, things like being with family and friends, or tackling the zillion other household chores that claw at one’s leisure time — work around the outside of the house has been low on the priority list.

Once upon a time, I derived a strong sense of satisfaction in getting out and mowing the lawn. In fact, I used to quietly mock the neighbors who paid for a lawn service, and missed out on the joy of knowing that hey, those trimmed hedges and that carefully spread mulch was your accomplishment.  I think growing up in Indiana, going to U-Pick blueberry farms and helping my dad around the yard, inspired a certain love of working with the land.

But as my body aged, suddenly outsourcing it all felt wiser.  Not to mention that the math favored it, too.  (“I’m paying hundreds of dollars to have mechanics fix my mowers each year?  And I could just pony up $40 every two weeks, AND get a few hours of my weekend back?  Shut up and take my money!”)

This weekend, however, was a little different.  Saturday, with the help of my father-in-law, we rebuilt the warping wooden steps on the side of the house and remounted the ceiling hooks for the front porch swing.  Sunday, my wife and I spent hours pole-sawing our way around the perimeter of our shed, cutting down and dragging away wayward branches that were scraping holes into its roof.  There were other minor tasks too, and a bazillion other things that we “probably should do.”  But it doesn’t matter.  The sense of accomplishment was there.

Mind you, I’m not about to come over to YOUR house and volunteer to rake YOUR leaves for a few hours this fall.  But I liked the reminder of how satisfying it is to take care of your house and your land, when they involve small tasks that you can get done in a morning.



My version of heaven

If I ever make it to a heavenly afterlife, it will be a corridor full of rooms, and each room will be filled with my friends, and we’ll talk and laugh and play board games and celebrate being in each others’ presence, not even noticing as time goes by.

Oh, and maybe someone will bring us food, too, if we need that there.

I’ve woken up from that dream a few times, and I love it every time.

But until then, I get immense satisfaction from being a part of every little heavenly gathering of friends here on Earth. Oh sure, it’s an extrovert’s heaven, and probably an introvert’s hell, but as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like to think we each get our own version of paradise.


Hiring Faith Rewarded

Pegasus-tokensToday I’m writing about the opposite of seeing thestrals. Maybe that makes it seeing… a Pegasus?  You know, the kind of deus ex machina that swoops in to help you when you didn’t realize how badly you needed it?

There’s a unique satisfaction derived from searching for a good hire, finding one, and having that person go on to reward you with great work. It’s easy to take such employees for granted. But every once in a while you ask that team member to do a task — one that you  could probably do yourself if you had the time, or perhaps that you’re not even sure how you would accomplish it without some serious thought — and then they turn around the assignment faster than you would have ever been able to. Even better, they did a great job. And then they do it again and again. And you say, Wow, this person is really making this team shine.

Keep reminding yourself that it’s worth the extra effort to hire the right person, and not to “settle.” Look for people who can soar, and help carry you to fight the work monsters  that lurk beyond your time bottlenecks.  Or if you’re on the other end, remember how much it’s worth searching until you find the right fit, with a manager that values you.

Human, Marketer, Musician

“Flipping the Bit”

A few more chorus members have left the chorus I sing in, casualties of trust from the transition. They’ve decided that for them, singing for that conductor in that chorus under these circumstances is just causing them angst. There are enough other musical outlets in the Boston area that they’ll certainly find another chorus to join.

It’s a cause for further grieving, as many of them are friends whom I enjoyed hanging out with during Tanglewood residencies. But at the same time, it might be a reason to congratulate them.

If you’re like me, you’ve been in situations where you look around yourself and say, “What am I doing here?” For me, that’s most often happened in my trailing months at a job. I realized that the work I was doing wasn’t satisfying, or that I was unlikely to advance my career path, or that the people I trusted and built a culture with had drifted away to other parts of the organization.

When that happens, you say to yourself, NOW what? It takes courage to make that assessment. To realize that something you’ve ALWAYS done is no longer giving you joy, and to change it.

Friend and fellow chorister Will Koffel called it “flipping the bit” (as in, moving a two-position switch from OFF to ON).  It’s an expression he picked up at a previous startup company to indicate when someone has irrevocably made the decision to leave. As in, “Foley’s been talking for months about quitting to go to another company, but you can tell he’s ‘flipped the bit’ because he’s stopped pushing for changes.  I think he’s serious this time.” At a certain point, you know you’re done. It’s a bit terrifying, but also liberating. And once you’ve done it, cognitive bias sets in, and no one can convince you it’s worth sticking around. Every smile by your boss is sinister; every good will gesture is viewed cynically; every mistake is further evidence why you should have left a long time ago. But I’ve seen people reach that stage and then quietly suffer, becoming more bitter with each passing day.

You may know the old joke – “Doctor, it hurts when I do that.”  “Don’t do that, then.” Why spend any part of your no-dress-rehearsal life trapped by inertia, doing something you don’t like? There’s joy in taking control of your reality and shaping it the way you want, rather than be a victim to the decisions and work of others. What can you “KonMari” out of your life that doesn’t bring joy?