3 things you most avoid may be what you most need

3 things you most avoid - walking surfersIn our creative work, in travel and in life overall, we often flee from the very things we most need. In particular, there are three things you most avoid that may be most beneficial to your creative work and to achieving your dreams.

What are the three things you most avoid that may most help you?

Suffering, failure and boredom. Those three.

“Well, of course,” you may be thinking. Who doesn’t want to avoid pain, failing or being bored? In and of themselves, they are no fun. But what they produce may be the very ingredients, resources or character traits you need for success.

I am not suggesting you actively pursue these three. You don’t have to. They are inevitable parts of life. But I am saying that making efforts to avoid them actually backfires. Like scientists are now telling us, washing your hands continuously with antibacterial soap only makes you more susceptible to germs in the long run. Trying to avoid germs in this way, much like trying to eliminate all suffering, failure and boredom from your life, just makes you more vulnerable to each when you do encounter them. You have no resistance.

I’ll explore each one in separate entries over the next few weeks since we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But for now, let me give you a quick summary of why these things you most avoid may be what you most need.

Suffering

Suffering is the antidote to superficiality. Through it you gain empathy, acquire wisdom and build grit – the ability to overcome.

Failure

Failure is the antidote to blandness and playing it safe. Through it you learn how to take appropriate risks, eliminate your unknown variables, achieve better outcomes and reframe what success means.

Boredom

Boredom is the antidote to distraction. Through it you improve your concentration, imagination, creativity and most of all, your deep thinking.

How you approach these three

Intrigued? I hope so because this backwards way of embracing three things you most avoid can have a profound effect on how you live. I will explain the upside of each of these in detail in three successive posts here. In addition, I’ll show you how you can get positive outcomes through these experiences we normally view only as negative.

But until then, let me offer a helpful analogy on how to approach these less-than-popular notions of suffering, failure and boredom.

How a riptide works

In my youth, I spent a lot of time at the beach. If you swim or surf in the ocean much, you soon learn about riptides.

Riptides are strong currents usually caused by the outflow of other water (e.g. from an inlet or near a river) or a sudden change in the depth of the water. In these situations, the riptide tends to pull you out to sea in a relentless flow. Trying to swim toward shore means swimming against a current much stronger than you. Many people drown when they attempt to swim in against a riptide. They simply exhaust themselves.

With suffering, failure and boredom, our goal isn’t to pursue them nor to directly oppose them. Rather, it is to understand them, embrace them and use them to our advantage much like experienced swimmers and surfers do with riptides.

With a riptide, you don’t resist it. You move through it and swim at a 90 degree angle to it to escape it. If you fight it, you get exhausted and possibly drown. If you ignore it, you’ll be washed out to sea (and possibly drown). If you let the fear of it keep you from ever going into the water, you’ll never experience the joy of the ocean, or the thrill of the waves and surf. You won’t drown, but you won’t have much fun.

The upside of the riptide

However, if you embrace the riptide by recognizing it for what it is and you keep moving, not against it toward the beach but across it parallel to the beach, you succeed. You come to shore in a different place, tired but stronger — and better able to go back out the next time.

Surfers sometimes use riptides to help them get out to the bigger waves with less effort. Once there, they paddle parallel to the shore until they are free from the riptide and can surf in freely. They have leveraged a negative and used it to their advantage.

That is precisely how we can address suffering, failure and boredom. They may be three things try to you avoid. But as we shall see, they may also be more helpful to you than you realize.

 

If I’d only known this secret to mastery earlier

secret to mastery - guitar

One secret to mastery is to break everything into small steps.

For example, small steps like practicing 15 minutes every day turns out to be more effective than say, slogging through five hours of practice once a week. This applies to learning a musical instrument, acquiring a second language or improving your jump shot. Break anything into daily baby steps and you’ll go further faster.

These small steps toward mastery work. But here’s the secret to mastery I wish I’d realized years ago: These small steps add up and work only if you master each one as you go. Don’t move to the next step until you’ve perfected this one.

For many forms of learning, if you want to achieve mastery, you simply can’t take short cuts. As a client once commented after realizing a large project required a number of steps that couldn’t be done concurrently, “I guess you can’t have nine women pregnant for one month each and deliver a baby.” Uh, yeah.

I’ve come to appreciate this recently as I’ve started taking guitar lessons with an instructor. By setting up a specific pathway to follow with certain drills to learn each week, my teacher has made it much easier to stick to a step-by-step method. It forces me to master each step before moving to the next. A few years ago, when I tried to learn the guitar on my own, I would practice to a level of semi-proficiency and count it good. So what if the middle section of “Here Comes The Sun” always slowed down. I only played for my own enjoyment so it didn’t matter.

Secret to mastery - guitar stringsOnly it did. And does. Here’s why. When it comes to mastery, we shortchange ourselves when we accept “adequate” as acceptable. We think we’re being efficient and moving on to the next level faster. But if we don’t truly master the current level — e.g. nailing the chord progression for “…sun, sun, sun, here it comes…” — then we end up eventually plateauing and being unable to progress. And then what happens? We either go in search of a simpler Beatles song or give up altogether and start looking for a new hobby or interest.

Sound familiar? There’s likely nothing new here. So why am I just realizing this secret to mastery myself? Because first of all, like most of us, I forget or don’t apply what I once knew. Second, not everything we do requires mastery. I enjoy surfing, fly fishing, mountain biking and a host of other activities in which I am, in many cases, barely proficient. And that’s OK. I don’t have to be an expert at each to derive pleasure from them. Being good enough is good enough for some activities.

The key is knowing which ones you care enough about to master. Dabble in some, but for those where you want to do more than just get by, build the habit of mastering each step along the way. And to do that, consider getting help in the form of a teacher or coach.

This reminds me of the old African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Instructors can help. But even more important is that when we master each step before moving to the next, we find that the journey itself becomes so enjoyable that speed or distance don’t seem as important. We’re content just to experience the wonderful satisfaction of doing each step well.

 

 

5 ways to improve your curiosity

Improve your curiosity: curious cat

Curiosity may have killed the cat (a curious phrase) but here’s the good news: You’re not a cat.

Why improve your curiosity? The long answer

Want to improve your curiosity? You may wonder why you need to.

The long answer is that curiosity is critical to innovation, improved processes and outcomes, greater discoveries, more creativity and better learning.

I heard a recent interview with an educational expert. She was critiquing our reliance on standardized testing. The interviewer eventually asked what alternatives are there to our current standardized tests. The response? Measure the single factor that contributes most to a person’s success in any job: Measure (and apparently there are ways to do this) their desire to learn.

If a person loves to learn she or he can succeed in any field. Why? Because that person will seek out and acquire the knowledge and skills needed. And guess what is at the root of this love of learning? Curiosity.

I told you it was the long answer.

The short answer

The short answer, at least to me, is this: curiosity makes life more interesting and without it, travel simply isn’t as much fun.

For me, curiosity turns everything into a quest to learn more. An exploration. A search of discovery. I find that when I’m curious, just about anything can be interesting. The world becomes one giant mystery just waiting to be solved.

Improve your curiosity in these five ways

So if curiosity is such a good thing, how might you cultivate or improve your curiosity? Try these five exercises:

  1. Learn to create space for curiosity.I’m starting with this important but often overlooked reality: Curiosity requires margins. When I’m stressed and preoccupied, I have zero interest in exploring anything new. Learn to create time just to wander and then to focus on something that interests you.
  2. Be just a little bit curious. Rather than attempting to go through a whole day in a curious mindset, take just 15 minutes to note what normally goes unnoticed. Pay attention to as many things as you can. Scab widely. But then – and this is the key to keep from being overwhelmed with data – go deep. Let go of those things or ideas that don’t grab you. Your goal isn’t just to be aware, but to use that as an entry point to becoming more curious about those things that interest and delight you.
  3. Be curious about what makes you curious. This is a great way to explore your deeper passions and interests, sometimes ones that you may not even be aware of. Your curiosity type will affect this to some degree, but ask yourself why some items, situations, people and thoughts excite you more than others. Pursue those and see where they lead. This is an important form of mindfulness: being aware of what piques your curiosity is something most of us never consider.
  4. Let your curiosity push you further. Don’t stop with your first question. Instead ask, “What’s the more interesting question behind the initial one? What’s the deeper curiosity behind the surface curiosity?”
  5. Make a choice to choose to learn, to explore, to discover. And then do so in a focused way. Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media can make us curious, but too often in only a wandering, even distracted way. I can waste a lot of time in useless curiosity or invest five minutes exploring a subject that deeply satisfies me. It’s an important choice we don’t always realize we have.

I once told a friend I wasn’t a detail-oriented person. He laughed. “We’re all detail-oriented in areas that matter to us.” He was right. Find those areas. Focus on those areas. Be curious about those areas and soon, you’ll not only be asking better questions. You’ll improve your curiosity.

And even more important, you’ll be discovering better answers and being curious as to what lies beyond those.

 

Different types of curiosity

Different types of curiosity: curious cat

They say curiosity killed the cat, but both parties here look equally curious and very much alive.

Different types of curiosity

Did you ever think that there are different types of curiosity? Likely not. Why? Because curiosity is usually more a means than an end. Rarely do we think, “Hmmm. I’m curious about what I’m curious about.” We tend to focus on the object of our curiosity, not curiosity itself.

There are likely as many types of curiosity as there are people. But to help us understand how we can enhance our own curiosity and use it to our advantage, here’s a starting framework on how to think about types of curiosity:

Who?

“Who curiosity” is for people curious about other people. This can range from fans wanting to know more about the secrets of certain celebrities to people who love biographies to highly relational types wanting to keep up with every latest occurrence in the lives of their friends.

What?

People curious about “what” tend to be life-long students, individuals who pursue learning for the sheer joy of it. What happened? What more is there to this? What does this relate to? These are all good “what curiosity” questions. “What if…?”—the mainstay question of innovators—fits in here as well as do a whole range of other “what” questions.

Where?

Ever wonder what’s around the next corner or over the next hill? Are you immediately attracted to maps and curious about what it might be like in other places? “Where curiosity” is the domain of the adventurer, discoverer and explorer, those people who not only want to know where something is, but actually go there and find out for themselves what it is like.

Why?

Issac Asimov once noted that the phrase most commonly used by scientists when making a discovery isn’t “Eureka” but rather, “That’s curious.” Scientists, detectives, philosophers, theologians and four-year-olds tend to have a relentless need to know why things are the way they are and to pursue answers to life’s biggest mysteries.

How?

“How curiosity” is the realm of engineers, tinkerers and inventors. “Why” may be a motivator as well, but the “how curiosity” tribe strives to know how something works and how it might be done better.

When?

Apart from historians, efficiency experts and statisticians, most of the people I know that ask the “when” question aren’t curious; they’re either simply impatient or seated in the back seat of the family car on a long road trip or, likely, both.

Which types of curiosity fit you best?

Next time, we’ll explore why knowing your curiosity type matters, particularly for travel. But for now, just think through the above list and see which one(s) most align with how you think and the questions you ask. We are all curious in all of the above ways – sometimes. But you likely gravitate toward one or two types most of the time. And in the next entry, I’ll explain how knowing this can make a bigger difference in your life than you might imagine.

Doesn’t that make you just a little bit curious?

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.