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Month: June 2019

Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After? You Choose.

Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After? You Choose.

Is this the beginning of the story or the end?

Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.

Things happen to people.

Actually, things happen and people exist. Those people (meaning you and me) make up stories to understand and conceptualize the things that happen.

I have a somewhat radical view of these stories. It’s not original and it’s not all that weird once you think about it but most people don’t think about it much so it’s outside of the mainstream. My view is that:

  1. Humans create stories about reality.
  2. Those stories about reality have almost no relationship to reality. (It’s not like they haven’t ever met but they really don’t know each other.)
  3. Humans live based on those stories rather than reality.

One of the many powerful corollaries to this idea is that changing the stories you tell yourself will change the way you interact with reality. Note that I didn’t say you can change reality. You can’t do that. But people don’t live in reality, they live in a story about reality.

(By the way, if you think you live in reality with out any filters, think again. If you use language you filter reality. Boom. Mic drop. Count it. )

I think its a good idea to note that these stories we create are almost all told to an uncritical audience of one inside the echo-y theater of our own heads. They are rarely written down, re-written, edited, checked for errors and almost never read by anyone else.

In other words, they are not very good stories and they are not really heard. This is why journalling can be so valuable, by the way. Journalling gets the unexamined stories that we’ve been performing in the cramped black box theater of our heads out into the world where we can see the flaws.

These stories we tell ourselves are the ancestors of campfire stories and novels and Netflix series and they have the same elements. Aristotle identified the 7 essential elements of storytelling as:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Dialogue
  • Setting/Dec√≥r
  • Melody*
  • Spectacle

Today let’s just look at character and plot. Clearly, the main character in whatever story you tell yourself is you. You are almost always the hero in your own story. Why not? (If you’re consistently the villain you should probably seek professional help or at least try to be nicer.)

Plot is key and there’s one aspect of plot that I want to focus on right now. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. In the stories we tell ourselves we usually see ourselves at the end. Whatever happened led to this (whatever this is).

It’s really valuable to notice that when we define the end of a story we define the kind of story it is. Comedies end with the good guys winning in some unexpected way. Adventures end with the good guys winning and the bad guys defeated. Romantic comedies end with a kiss. Romances end with a wedding. Tragedies end with death or defeat. If you can be conscious about how you see the story of your life you can change the context into which the main character (yeah, that’s you, congratulations!) is living. Is the crisis that just happened the tragic end of the story or a challenge in the middle of it? Did your romance end when you got married and now you’re halfway through a screwball comedy or a modern version of Ethan Frome?**

Or maybe this is just the beginning of a new tale. This is, in fact, what I would recommend. Start writing a new story today. Today is the first day of the rest of your life (cue opening credits). Beginnings have power. The hero (yep, still you, casting hasn’t found anyone who can do the job better) has lessons to learn and is imbued with unlimited potential. Your next step is the first on the magical yellow brick road. Everything that has come before is just prologue. That horrible thing that just happened? That was the inciting incident. The event that started this new story. The past is nothing but old stories filled with lessons learned that will help you climb the next mountain, win the final kiss and get the last laugh.

And how about those other elements that Aristotle identified? If you start to look at the story that you tell yourself about life and reality as it’s happening to you and as you think about your past and your future, I’m sure you can see how changing the theme or accentuating certain bits of dialogue or changing the setting would change the meaning of the story.

*Honestly, I don’t know what Aristotle means by melody. I have some research to do. In the meantime, let’s pretend that he meant the soundtrack of your life. Is it composed by John Williams or Danny Elfman? Maybe Pharrell Williams is what you’re bopping your head to as you watch your life unfold in front of your eyes. (That sounds happy!)

**If you haven’t read it, don’t. I read it in high school and I still haven’t recovered. Makes Anna Karenina look like a rom-com.

10 Secrets To Getting Things Done

10 Secrets To Getting Things Done

As with everything in this blog, this is for me as much as you. Hope you find this useful.

1. Write it down

Your mind is an unruly place where some things will get lost and other things will spin around and around until they pick up a dangerous amount of torque (I don’t know what that means exactly but the metaphor is apt).

Get stuff out of there as much as you can. If you have an idea or a project or a problem you want to solve, the first thing you should do is write it down. That way it has an existence outside of your head. This has two benefits. You don’t have to think about it anymore (or as much) and you won’t forget it.

2. Say what you’re going to do

If you want to do something, tell somebody that you’re going to do. If you really want to do something, promise somebody that you’re going to do it. If you REALLY want it to happen, give them a deadline and ask them to hold you accountable.

3. Do what you say you’re going to do

Get in the habit of doing what you say you’ll do. Take your word seriously. There’s a lot of power in that. It’s not a moral thing. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a good person if you don’t or can’t keep your promises. But if you keep your promises as often as you can and revise your promises when something comes up (rather than ignoring that you made promise) you’re word will become more and more powerful until a chair will fall out of your mouth when you say the word chair.

4. Behavior and thoughts and emotions are interdependent and they all affect each other

What you do affects the way you feel and the way you think. What you think affects the way you feel and what you do. How you feel affects the way you think and what you do. Here’s a post about this.

5. Behavior is easier to change than thoughts and emotions

It seems counterintuitive but it’s actually difficult to change our minds. We have grooves in our brains (or rather we have established, habitual neuropathways) that keep us making the same decisions and feeling the same feelings. Moving our bodies to the gym is easier than feeling like we want to exercise. Smiling (which actually makes us feel better) is easier than changing our emotions so we feel like smiling.

See how these things work together? Instead of thinking endlessly about doing something and waiting till you feel like doing it, you promise someone that you’ll do something and then you do it even if you don’t feel like it.

6. Ask for help

I don’t know why, but most people are happy to help others but they don’t want to ask anyone for help. Would you like to help people? Most people feel the same way. If you want to get something done, ask people to help you.

7. Offer to help others

There are people who could use your talents and connections and knowledge but they’re afraid to ask you. Offer help. You’ll feel tremendous and often it’ll be weirdly easy. Have you ever helped a toddler get their shoes on? It’s like that.

8. Do one thing at a time

If you do one thing at time you will do it better and you’ll do it faster. Multitasking has been shown, over and over again, to be inefficient.

9. Play hard

Do your best. Why not? It makes everything better if you try hard. I’ve enjoyed washing dishes for 12 hour shifts because I took pride in doing it really well.

10. Play by the rules

This should go without saying but it doesn’t.

Cheating takes all the fun out of any accomplishment and it’s immoral and unethical. If (when) you get caught you will lose everything.

4 Steps to the Finish Line or How To Get It Done

4 Steps to the Finish Line or How To Get It Done

I’m deep into the first version of the 4 Step Workbook. This will help people (including myself) use the 4 Steps to get things done.

The 4 Steps are:

  • Step Back: Take a look at the big picture and set your direction, destination and goals.
  • Step Up: Take responsibility and set up accountability.
  • Step Forward: Take action.
  • Step Out: Get in communication with people and expand your community.

This will be a workbook which will help anyone become more productive My question is how can I get the word out for this?

If you would like to be a beta tester for this workbook, send me an email at john at


How To Be The Protagonist

How To Be The Protagonist


A friend of mine observed that the person in her family who was craziest was the only one who wasn’t in therapy.

This is ironic but also not surprising. For therapy to have any effect, the patient (or client) has to recognize that there’s something wrong. As the old joke says, it only takes one therapist but the lightbulb has to want to change.

I can testify that my ability to change is proportional to my willingness to change which is related to my recognition that there is something that needs to change.

Changing is hard and takes time so you have to be motivated to start and stay on the journey. Along the way you will face challenges and difficulties and you will learn lessons. it will be exciting and, maybe, interesting to watch.

Like a movie.

In the survey class I teach on film and American culture (called Introduction to Film and American Culture) I give my students some simplified definitions of narrative devices because the course focuses on Hollywood movies which (I argue) are basic narratives that decades of economic evolution and corporate rock tumbling have worn smooth.. The protagonist, say I, is the main character in a movie who either changes, changes their world or (most often) both.

The antagonist is the character who causes the protagonist to change, often (but not always) by opposing the protagonist. The antagonist is often resistant to change.

So when you are ready to change, you are ready to be the protagonist. If you resist change, you are the antagonist.

Narratives are about change. A story in which nothing changes is usually very boring (unless the prose is fantastic, for example Rememberance of Things Past or Waiting For Godot) and not really a story. This is one of the reasons that Hollywood is typically progressive rather than conservative. Generally speaking, conservatives don’t want things to change. Stories are all about revolution and evolution and taking on the powers that be and making the world a better, fairer place.

So if you want to be the protagonist of your own life you have to willing to recognize where you need to change and than to be willing to do what it takes to make that change. Hopefully you’ll be in a story with a happy ending and you’ll have good stunt doubles to take most of the worst punches.

A Recommendation

A Recommendation

One of my favorite things to do is to watch episodes of The West Wing on Netflix and then listen to Joshua Malina (an old friend of mine and a cast member of The West Wing) and Hrishikesh Hirway (a musician and West Wing superfan).

West Wing Weekly started a few years ago and covers one episode per week. I started discovered the podcast and have been listening as they come out but, of course, it’s a podcast so you can listen to them in at any time you want.

Josh and Hrishi are intelligent and very funny (they like puns a bit more than is really decent but nobody’s perfect) and they often have guests from the show like Aaron Sorkin, Allison Janney, Laurence O’Donnell and Bradley Whitford. They also often talk to experts on politics, policy and the various topics that the West Wing covers. Howard Dean was a guest, for example, and he talked about primary politics which is a big part of the sixth season. The most recent episode featured interviews with Alan Alda and Reverend Katey Zeh who is the the executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The West Wing shows the White House as it ought to be. The administration is Democrat and the show leans to the left but more importantly, rivals are treated with respect, governing comes before politics and people strive to do the right thing at all times and follow the rules. The contrast of the show, which will be 20 years old this fall, and our current political climate is often startling and illuminating.

So if you’re looking for something to do that will be both entertaining and educational, watch The West Wing and listen to The West Wing Weekly.

Richard Schiff talks to West Wing Weekly hosts Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina
How Much Time Have You Got?

How Much Time Have You Got?

The idea of time has changed over the past century or so. For most humans, for most of our existence as a species, everything was cyclical. The sun rose and the world warmed up and the sun went down and the world cooled off. The seasons came around as usual and people were born, grew up and died. If you were born a peasant, which nearly everyone was, your life would be the same as your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents. Nothing significant would change.

For the past 300 years or so, things have changed at an accelerating pace until now change is rapid, enormous and normal. It’s gotten to the point where it’s impossible to write science fiction because it’s very clear that nothing is predictable. I love to give the example of reading stories by Phillip K. Dick or Asimov where the hero is his flying car looking for a payphone. I’m currently reading a book that Connie Willis (who, ironically, has written some of the best novels ever about time travel) published 3 years ago and it feels incredibly dated.

This brings up the issue of time. Time is surprisingly difficult to define. in Time Travel by James Gleick, Gleick points out that Time Travel as a science fiction concept was invented by H.G. Wells in his novel The Time Machine. This is actually not that surprising when you realize that Wells (and Jules Verne) basically invented the genre as well as the concept. Wells also seems to have introduced the idea of time as the fourth dimension. In the book, Gleick also points out that time is notoriously difficult to define. It’s something we experience differently depending on how we pay attention to it.

This is not a new problem. Saint Augustine said:

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”*

Saint Augustine

In the beginning of Truckers (which I started just after Time Travel – I should talk about synchronicity sometime) Terry Pratchett suggests that our experience of time might be relative to how long we live.

“One of the shortest-lived creatures on the planet Earth is the adult common mayfly.  It lasts for one day.  The longest-living things are bristlecone pine trees, at 4,700 years and still counting. This may seem tough on mayflies. But the important thing is not how long your life is, but how long it seems.”

Terry Pratchett

Pratchett then goes on to say something hilarious about old mayflies waxing nostalgic about the good old minutes at the beginning of the day when things were better.

Us humans live about 3/4 of a century so that’s an amount of time that makes sense to live. It’s enough. What is different is the pace and how we measure time.

Remember that Saint Augustine didn’t have mechanical clocks. He measured time, when he did, by the movement of the sun and the stars. He also thought that the Universe was created by God in six days about 4000 years before he was born. Contrast that to my experience of time which I can measure to hundredths of a second. I think the Universe exploded into being 13.8 billion years ago.

it’s good to remember that while human brains are very adaptable, we evolved for centuries in a state that had more in common with Saint Augustine’s world than ours. We have very little understanding of how long one thousand years is let alone one billion. We also don’t know how long a millisecond is (a blink of an eye takes about 300 of them). Yet we live in a world where technology allows us to move faster and faster. Family legend says that my grandfather’s grandfather and his brother walked from Presque Isle, Maine to Boston, Massachusetts to join the Army and fight in the civil war. He walked because he didn’t have a horse (or if he did he didn’t have a way to get it back home to the farm after he joined up). It took him 3 and a half weeks. Today it would take 3 and a half hours to fly.

Ultimately, time and our attention (and maybe money) are our most valuable assets. Neither one is renewable. Ironically, if we pay attention to our time, we are aware of how little we have and we may enjoy spending it less. On the other hand, if we don’t pay attention to our time, we may enjoy it more and value it less. On the other hand, it’s very easy to waste it on things we don’t value because a lot of smart people are trying to grab as much of it as possible in very entertaining ways.

I find that if I want to spend my time being productive I have to schedule time and track it. When I was younger there wasn’t any internet or electronic distractions in my pocket and there was rarely anything good on TV. Now I have distractions on demand.

Thanks for spending a few minutes reading this. According to my calculations, it too you about 2 minutes to read this. That’s about 1/7th of 1% of the time it takes the Earth to rotate once.

I hope it was worth it. It took a longer than I thought it would to write and I didn’t reach any earth shattering conclusions.

But that’s normal.

*Gleick includes this quote in his book and I looked it up to confirm it. On Brainy Quotes it says that Augustine lived from 354 to 430 and his profession was “Saint.”

I wonder how much that job paid?