Cara Stein's Blog, page 7

April 20, 2011

Two tense people having it out

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

"You see it all around you: good lovin' gone bad." – .38 Special

Tolstoy famously said "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But in my experience, that's not really true. Actually, most people are unhappy in the same ways, and it's mostly due to making the same few mistakes.

I've made them all in my own relationships, and I couldn't figure out why I kept having the same bad relationship over and over. Was I picking losers? Was there something wrong with me? The guys all seemed fine when we started dating–maybe I was taking perfectly sound guys and ruining them one by one!

Luckily, I hit bottom and realized something had to change. After several gajillion dollars of therapy (worth every penny!), a complete self-reinvention, and a lot of practice, everything has changed. I'm shaping my own destiny, building my ideal life. And, I have the best romantic relationship I've ever had.

I don't believe a romantic relationship is necessary to having a happy, full life. Let's face it, being single is far more peaceful and pleasant than being in a relationship with a lot of strife.

But if you're going to have a relationship, you might as well avoid all the mistakes you can and make it the best it can be. So, here's my top list of what not to do.

Start with the love potion

You know the heady rush of new love? You can do anything, you don't even need sleep, and the whole world is beautiful and magical! It feels like you and this person were predestined for each other, like if you hadn't met, the fabric of the universe would have been torn.

Feels great, doesn't it? Too bad it wears off. It's caused by happy chemicals in your brain and your projection of your idealized self onto the other person. We have a tendency to fill in everything we don't know about a person with exactly what we want to see. That's why it often seems like a few months later, the spell wears off, and you realize the other person isn't who you thought they were at all.

I've fallen for this so many times! Each time, I thought it was the end of the world if I didn't get together with this person immediately, so I did, and then we had a relationship of two or three years, which got worse as it went on, until I couldn't stand it any more and ended it.

But when it took over a year for my divorce to come through, I had an eye-opening experience. For the first time, I felt these feelings but did not act on them. I was still technically married, so I couldn't in good conscience get involved with anyone. To my amazement, each soul-mate end-of-the-world OMG high dissipated in two or three weeks.

Loneliness, boredom, wanting attention, and chemicals all make bad foundations for a relationship.

Care only about yourself

A lot of people think that, in a relationship, their romantic partner is responsible for making them happy. I certainly thought that, especially in my first marriage. If I was unhappy or anything went wrong, I blamed my husband. He should be protecting me from things like that and making everything perfect! He should want me to be happy, and thus be willing to do everything my way! Moreover, he should inherently know what I want and need, and automatically provide those things without my having to ask.

It sounds completely stupid written out this way, but I think it's an easy trap to fall into.

We hear so much nonsense about "happily ever after"–even those of us who don't watch princess movies any more get it all the time. How many happy-ending romantic comedies manage not to end with a wedding? As if that's the only possible happy ending. As if it's a happy ending at all, when really it's a beginning that might be happy or might not.

Plus, this person is around all the time, they put up with your crap, and they love you. It's easy to get lazy and take your frustrations out on them or just expect them to pick up your slack. What's more insidious, if you expect your partner to make you happy, then you can always blame him or her if you're not. That way, you never have to do anything about it. You may never be happy, but you don't have to make those hard, scary changes, either.

Care only about the other person

In my second marriage, I made the opposite mistake. With much encouragement from the church, I put my husband's needs ahead of my own and avoided selfishness at all costs. This is also a recipe for disaster.

If you constantly choose the other person over yourself, you make it highly unlikely that your needs will be met. You set yourself up for ever-increasing exhaustion and resentment.

The problem with this approach is that if you're not taking care of yourself and meeting your own needs, you won't have anything to give. If you keep giving anyway, you just become more and more depleted. Any time you're doing something for someone and find yourself resenting it, take a hard look. If you're doing it out of fear or guilt, it's not a true gift.

People can tell the difference. The things you do out of fear, guilt, and resentment do not increase the positive energy in the relationship. The things that cost you the most don't even count as gifts!

I had that all backwards and thought any real gift had to be a sacrifice on my part, so I thought I was doing great things with all of my suffering. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was the opposite! If you don't believe me, try it both ways. You may be surprised to find that the things you're suffering the most to give others aren't even things they want. What a waste of effort!

Don't listen

One of the surest ways to a bad relationship is to stop paying attention to the other person. Most people think we're good listeners, but if you're checking your email, looking something up, or even just thinking about something else while the other person is talking, you're not fully listening.

When someone–anyone in your life–talks to you or does something to get your attention, there are three ways you can respond: positively, negatively, or nothing. Obviously it's a continuum, but what's surprising is that not responding is actually more deadly to a relationship than responding negatively.

Not responding doesn't just mean flat-out ignoring the other person. It can also include dismissing what they say or arguing that their perceptions are invalid. The most classic example of this was when I complained to my husband that instead of listening to what I said, if he felt threatened, he tended to argue with me and try to talk me out of my perceptions. Immediately, he started arguing with me and insisting he never did that! Sadly, he didn't even see any irony in the situation.

When you don't listen, or listen only from your perspective without getting what it means to the other person, it erodes the connection between you.

Don't talk

I used to think hurting someone's feelings was one of the worst things I could possibly do and should be avoided at all costs. So I never said anything I thought the other person would not want to hear. What a disaster!

Obviously I'm not saying it would be good to go around hurting people's feelings on purpose for no reason, but in a functional relationship, each person has two responsibilities:

to express his or her needs and make sure they get met (with or without the other person's help), and
to tell the other person when he or she is on the wrong track.

You can't have a good relationship if you don't take care of yourself. You do the other person a disservice if don't call him or her on misguided thinking (or spinach between the teeth). Possibly hardest of all, you can't have a deep relationship if you don't let the other person see your real self.

It can be hard and scary to say those things–what if the other person gets mad or doesn't like me any more?–but it makes the difference between an empty shell and a relationship both parties can count on.

Deny reality

Don't like how things are going? It's much easier to pretend everything is fine than to change anything.

Unfortunately, problems rarely solve themselves or go away on their own if you ignore them long enough. I used to spend a lot of energy trying to convince myself things didn't bother me, usually because I thought it was unreasonable to be bothered by them. But, no matter how many times I recited "love is patient, love is kind" to myself through gritted teeth, I just couldn't wrestle myself into feeling any more patient or kind, and whatever it was still bothered me.

In reality, if something bothers you, it is a problem. You don't need any more criteria than that.

That doesn't mean you can impose your will on the other person and demand they do exactly as you say, but it does mean you have the duty to say or do something about it before it gets to the point where you want to wring the other person's neck.

The bigger the problem, the more crucial it is for you to face it before things get worse.

Relationship redux

I know from experience how miserable these mistakes can make a relationship, and most of them come from the best of intentions. Go along to get along, don't rock the boat, and most of all, relationships take work!

I think some of the worse advice ever is to work on your relationship. You can labor away 'til the cows come home, but does it help? Most relationship "work" doesn't work at all!

Great relationships are easy, fun, and joyful–almost effortless. It's bad relationships that require all that struggle. If you think about the other person, and your reflex reaction is to be delighted and grateful for the relationship, you're on the right track. If it's more like, "ugh, what will I have to do today to make this work?" you're in trouble!

I'm working on a project right now to help people create the kind of easy, fun partnership that really makes life sing. If you want someone to take you by the hand, show you how to create this for yourself, and guide you along the way, enter your name and email below, and you'll be the first to know when it's ready.

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Published on April 20, 2011 15:43 • 22 views

April 11, 2011

two people in love

Image by Summers, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Note: You may also like my recent guest post on Goodlife Zen: How to be your own best friend. Check it out!

A couple I know got married this past weekend. As a twice-divorced person, introvert, and girlfriend of the dad of the groom, I would normally find this a recipe for misery and catch the first flight out of town. However, the wedding and surrounding festivities were beautiful and magical in a way that was unique to this couple. By sharing the celebration with friends and family from far and wide, they gave us all the gift of being part of their lives. They also gave everyone a reason to gather and an opportunity to see each other for the first time in years.

I admire this couple for many reasons, but maybe most of all for their ability to capture beautiful moments and savor life. It seems like they're always going on small adventures or excursions, playing, discovering, creating. She's a photographer, and from her pictures, you can tell that she takes the time to really be wherever she is, to observe it and appreciate it.

For those of us who have gotten into the habit of rushing from task to task without slowing down, here are a few things that may help.

Celebrate. Of course, most people celebrate the big things, like weddings and graduations, but celebrate the small things, too. It's the first warm day of spring? You found something you lost? You accomplished something good? Your flowers are blooming? You're alive? Celebrate!

Share. I'll be the first one to tell you, I suck at sharing. I want the whole candy bar for myself, I don't like people messing with my stuff, and if I ever got married again (unlikely), I would want to elope.

But watching how much everyone enjoyed spending time together this weekend, I think that would be a shame, in a way. No matter how much fun we have when we get together, most people don't make the time for it unless there's a wedding or a funeral. Instead, let's make time for each other, especially when we can do it without all the hoopla of a big event.

Roll with it. In life, as in weddings, things rarely go as planned. We all have the choice every day to be Bridezilla or not. For the wedding this weekend, all of the flowers died, and someone had the bright idea to surprise the bride (who dreads insects and hates to see anything oppressed or in captivity) with a cage full of butterflies to be released. She handled everything with pure grace.

Here's the thing: dead flowers don't ruin a wedding by themselves. It's only a disaster if you let it be. You can either flip out and start screaming at everyone, or you can be calm and quickly procure replacements from Costco. The same is true for almost everything that goes wrong in life. It can be difficult to stay calm when things are going wrong, but it's worth the effort.

Seek out beauty. It's all around us, but we're often moving so fast, we can't see it. Make time to notice the wildflowers, or the cool way the branches of a tree come together, or the glorious sunset.

You can also create your own beauty. Even something as simple as a bouquet of flowers, a different cover on your bed, or removing the clutter from one corner of a room can be something to enjoy and admire.

Love. It can be hard and scary to open your heart and let yourself be vulnerable to another person, especially if you've had bad experiences in the past. But really, what's the point if not to know and be known, be truly understood and loved for who you really are? That can't happen if you're hiding.

The big, deep love is rare, but a few find it, or create it. It can't happen when you're protecting yourself. In the words of Ben Lee, "gamble everything for love."

Make a list of things you need

leave it empty

except for number one–write love–

gamble everything

At this wedding, the bride and groom's love was so radiant, it was hard to look at them without crying. When the celebrant started to ask the groom for his vow, he jumped in with "I will!" before she had half the sentence out. I know he was embarrassed to make such a "mistake," but it was really sweet. And when it was the bride's turn, she did the same thing, for solidarity.

That's the way to do it. Wear your heart on your sleeve, and have the other person's back. Everyone who was at the wedding will always remember that moment, because they got it so right.

Be yourself. Often the things we're most self-conscious about are the very things that are most endearing to the people who love us. Are you the kind of person who impulsively decides to learn to play the ukulele, or makes up arguments that J. P. Morgan was really a vampire, or brings several dozen clown noses to a wedding reception? Or maybe you think you're boring, but actually, you're the one people turn to when they can't figure their lives out.

Whatever it is, give yourself permission to stop worrying what people think. Find what makes you unique, and be more like that.

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Published on April 11, 2011 07:58 • 22 views

April 1, 2011

beware digital man

Image by altemark via flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

I just want to let everyone know that my old yarn business site was attacked, and 17,000 Days was taken out as collateral damage for about 24 hours. If you tried to come here and got nothing, that's what was going on.

The good news is:

The attackers deleted a lot of stuff, so I realized something had gone wrong and could do something about it
I had taken backups less than two weeks ago, so almost nothing was lost
I have some computer knowledge, so I was able to restore things myself when my hosting provider wasn't much help
I have now gotten around to installing software to do regular automatic backups of my sites
I have eliminated the hole where the bad guys got in

I'm still going through everything with a fine-tooth comb to check for any other breaches, but it seems to be limited to the yarn stuff.

This was my first time for anything like this, and I felt so small and helpless! I knew I should be paying more attention to backups and stuff, but I thought my hosting provider had my back. Besides, I really never expected it to happen to me. If it wasn't for WordPress versioning up recently and nagging me to back up and upgrade, I could have lost a lot.

So, I guess this is another "don't do like I did!" post. You're never too small to lose your stuff. If you don't have regular automatic offsite backups of your data, get that set up now! Amazon S3 is a great place to put them–storage is super cheap (seriously, pennies a month) or free.

Meanwhile, a big thank you to Jen Gresham at Everyday Bright and Lindsey Donner at–their comfort and generous offers of help were what finally snapped me out of maximal freakout mode. (Telling myself freaking out doesn't help and this wouldn't matter in 100 years were not doing the job!) Be sure and check out Jen's post on the Happiness Wars–it is totally awesome, and features my book!

P.S. I wish this was an April fool's joke, but it's not! If you find anything that's broken, please email me at cara [at] 17000 [dash] days [dot] com or tweet at me @cara_stein. Thanks for your help!

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Published on April 01, 2011 11:57 • 21 views

March 24, 2011

An elaborate to-do list

Image by Koalazymonkey via Flickr

You sit down at your desk. You have several dozen things needing to be done, including about 10 that you'd love to finish today. Yet, instead of working, you find yourself reading blogs or Facebook.

There are plenty of productivity tools and techniques out there: clear your desktop, check email only once a day, use productivity applications to lock yourself out of the internet, and so on. Those things can help, but it seems to me they're more about treating the symptoms than fixing the problem.

If your problem is getting started, check out my new guest post on The Change Blog–it's all about how to get started when you're stuck.

But what if you've already started, you know what you're supposed to be doing, you have a plan, maybe you even like the task… but you still can't make yourself get to work? Maybe you're beginning to think you've recently developed ADD, or you're just getting too old and losing your mind.

I've been there. Two years ago, I was totally convinced I had ADD. I could not concentrate or sit still long enough to accomplish a single thing at work, even if I stapled myself to my chair. I thought I was brain-damaged and needed to find a new profession. I just couldn't do computer stuff any more!

But suddenly, along came Thanksgiving break, and I spent all of it building a website for my yarn business, totally absorbed for hours at a time, surfacing only occasionally to eat or sleep. Guess it wasn't ADD after all!

Here's something that may surprise you: it's not necessarily laziness, either. There are many reasons to procrastinate. Aside from being intimidated or not wanting to do something, one common reason to procrastinate is the view that life is a perpetual flow of work. It doesn't matter if you finish this task, because there's an infinite queue behind it, with no fun in sight. So why waste the energy working?

Also, procrastination often rewards you. How many times have you put off a task you really didn't want to do, and then something happened to render it unnecessary? That doesn't have to happen many times to make Procrastination Roulette seem pretty attractive.

Another reason people procrastinate is for the adrenaline. Some people live for the rush of the frantic last-minute push before a deadline, just getting in under the wire. When you make the dramatic effort and get the job done in those final minutes, you probably feel like a hero, maybe even a firefighter… not realizing you were the arsonist who set the fire with your procrastination.

These reasons for procrastination make sense in their own way. We all observe the way the world works and get conditioned to do the things that get us some desired outcome. It wouldn't make sense to do otherwise.

To get around procrastination, you need to find a way to make doing your work more rewarding than putting it off.

Making it work

First of all, it's essential to get realistic about how much time you have. Make a calendar for the next week, and a list of what you want to accomplish in that time. Don't write the tasks on the calendar; instead, block off all of the time that's already committed to other things. Meetings, commuting, eating, sleeping, appointments–mark all of that time to show that it's unavailable.

What's left is the time you have to work with. It's a lot less than a whole week, isn't it? Suddenly, not finishing your to-do list may seem a lot more reasonable.

Now schedule in at least one fun thing to look forward to. This will help dispel your mental myth that there's no point in working because no fun is coming.

Block off time for rest and exercise, too. For me, those are usually the first things to go when the schedule gets tight, but that's counterproductive. Exercise and sleep are the two most powerful ways to help yourself think clearly and handle things well! You can't afford to skip them.

The time that's still blank on your calendar is what you have available for getting work done.

How to get the most out of your work time

Start with the most important thing you need to do. Most things take longer than we expect, so make sure if you run out of time, you'll have the highest-priority things done.

I once read that I should goof off for half an hour before getting any work done, to get it out of my system. For me, this was the worst advice ever! I intend to send a few emails, catch up on Facebook, and get right to work—20 minutes, tops. But next time I look up, an hour has gone by, if not more.

Forget that. Get to work immediately.

Work in small chunks to stay on task. Deciding to sit down and do three hours of programming is too much. Trying to catch up from the time you spent goofing off yesterday, forget it!

Instead, start with 20 minutes. That's long enough to accomplish a piece of something but not so long as to be completely miserable.

This can be hard at first, but it's the most effective way I know to train yourself to concentrate and get back into mental shape. Commit to working for a solid block of 20 minutes, then taking a break or rewarding yourself in some way.

When you start a session, either set a timer or note your starting time. As you work, if you feel yourself tempted by distractions, note how much time you have left and direct yourself back to the task. Remind yourself it's only 20 minutes.

When time is up, give yourself a small reward: walk around, talk to someone, eat a snack, or do something you like for 10 minutes (careful with this one–just 10 minutes!). This lets you associate work with rewards and realize there's more to life than an unending stream of drudgery. After your break, go back for another 20-minute block.

At first, you may find yourself really squirmy, dying for the 20 minutes to be up. Notice exactly what's bothering you.

-Are you overwhelmed with trying to understand all the nuances of what you're trying to do? Try writing things down to help map it out for yourself.

-Are you intimidated by the task? Break it down into the smallest pieces you can.

-Are you lost as to what you really need to be doing or how to do it? Get help or clarification, from your boss or from research into how others have solved this problem. (If your research involves the internet, again, be careful not to get sidetracked.)

As you get used to working for 20 minutes at a time and really concentrating, it becomes easier and easier, until you can simply sit down at your desk and begin working.

Make it as easy as possible. Distractions are the enemy of getting work done. Make it easier for yourself by eliminating as many distractions as possible. Don't try to multitask. Turn off email notifications, close your office door if you have one, and close all of the browser windows with fun stuff in them. Get all the junk off your desk.

If you're in the middle of a session and you think of something unrelated that you want to look up or remember to do, make a note to yourself. This way, you can take care of it later but you don't interrupt what you're doing.

Concentration is golden–treasure it and protect it.

Enjoy how good it feels to accomplish things. Praise yourself, track your progress, and celebrate your accomplishments. The next day, remember how good it felt to be so productive the day before, and use that as inspiration to get started and stay focused.

Work can be very satisfying when you do a great job. The most satisfying activities require concentration; challenge you but match your skills well; provide immediate feedback; and represent a harmony between what you feel, want, and think. Those activities will give you the flow state if you can concentrate while doing them.

I talk a bit more about this in my book, How to be Happy (No Fairy Dust or Moonbeams Required)– doing gratifying work that takes you to the flow state is one of the best sources of true, deep happiness. It can be addictive, and it's definitely better than procrastinating!


If you want to read more about beating procrastination and being productive, a lot of the ideas in this post came from The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore.

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Published on March 24, 2011 05:00 • 18 views

March 18, 2011

iguana chillin' in a tree

Afraid? I think not.
Image a by raelb, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There's a prevailing theory that fear comes from our brain stem, the lizard brain we carry from our evolutionary ancestors. Its hard wiring for fight or flight is what causes us to be so afraid all the time, even in our cushy modern lives.

On one hand, this seems as good an explanation as any. There's got to be some reason we get so adrenalized and have all these physical reactions to things, even though for most of us, our greatest danger is eating too many fries, sitting on the couch too much, and dying of heart disease.

It's certainly true that I fear a lot of stupid things. But thinking about it, the lizard brain theory isn't adding up.

I had an iguana named Peep. He had a true lizard brain, and I can tell you, he wasn't afraid of making phone calls, and he wasn't afraid of doing difficult things. I used to joke that he did my master's degree homework for me. "Can't" wasn't in his vocabulary.

Well, ok, neither were many English words, but he wasn't intimidated by anything. When he was about six inches long (including his tail), he climbed my all-metal baker's rack, clear to the top. It was tall, it was slippery with nothing to grab; he climbed it anyway, through sheer strength and determination.

Later, when I got a cat, he came out of his cage once when she was around. Here's a carnivorous creature probably five times his size, but was he intimidated? No. He walked past her, climbed up on the couch, and made himself at home. When she made moves to bat at his tempting tail, wiggling across the floor like a cat toy, he turned around and glared at her until she backed off.

If anybody tried to mess with Peep, he walloped them with his tail. End of story. He was determined, intrepid, and confident.

Clearly, it is not my lizard brain that's so afraid of all this ridiculous stuff. So what is it?

I think I've figured it out. I was talking to my awesome business coach the other day, and he said I should start making connections with some bloggers who are bigger than me. I recently got over my fear of pitching guest posts by reframing it as "submitting pieces for publication" rather than "talking to people," but here I was, back to talking to people! I felt a reflex gut reaction of fear and dread. But in that instant, I managed to slow my thoughts down long enough to see a mental picture of what I feared.

The scene was the inside of a school bus. I was in second grade. I couldn't find a seat, and the driver started pulling away from the bus stop. I was in a moving vehicle but not properly seated–that's dangerous! I was afraid I would die and started crying, and a bunch of older girls gathered around me and started laughing and making fun of me, calling me a baby.

Awesome. I don't have lizard brain, I have second grade brain.

That incident is also the reason, up until a few years ago, I never cried if I could help it, especially in front of other people. During my divorce mess, I finally lost it and started crying in church, and to my utter amazement, my nice friends rallied around and comforted me. I guess if I had thought about it, of course they wouldn't all get in a circle, point, laugh, and call me a baby. But I never thought about it.

Similarly, if I email bloggers who have more subscribers than I have, will they start laughing at me and making fun of me for trying to be cool like them?

Cara: Hi Leo. Can I be friends with you?

Leo Babauta: Ha ha ha ha! No! You're a loser! I will karate chop you! And then I'll call up all my cool blogger friends and we'll all talk about how stupid your hair looks!

Shit. Maybe I should try Chris Guillebeau.

Cara: Hi Chris. Can I be friends with you?

Chris: What?! Uh, Noo-ooo! Try not dressing like a dork and maybe you'll be unconventional enough to be worthy of doing my math homework one day. Meanwhile, as if!

Damn damn damn. (Who knew Chris was such a Valley girl?)

Cara: Hi Everett, or do you like to be called @Evbogue? Can I be friends with you?

@Evbogue: WTF? NO! You still have a tv, and you are clearly not a cyborg. You're a fat, McNugget-eating, stuff-having lameass, and I will taunt you every chance I get!

Wait a minute, wait a minute! Did you just talk to me in more than 140 characters?! Gah! (storms off in a rage)

Completely absurd, right? None of these bloggers would act that way. (Well, except maybe @Evbogue–you never know what he'll do next.)

Anyway, I know better than that. I emailed most of my heroes last week to send them advance copies of my book. A surprising number wrote back, and those who did were super encouraging and nice.

How to beat these ridiculous fears

Second grader brain can get you every time. But like most fears, knowledge is the key to combating it.

When you find yourself shrinking back from the idea of doing something, ask yourself why? Don't settle for the facile answer that usually comes first, seek out the real answer. What are you afraid will happen? Describe what you're picturing in your mind when you think of doing this.

Classic risk management techniques dictate listing the risks, with the cost of damages, probability, and cost to mitigate for each one. For things that are unlikely but catastrophic and cheap to mitigate, take action. For example, it's not that likely that your car will catch fire, but if it does, you're pretty much screwed. However, fire extinguishers cost about $25. Get one. Don't let the risk of fire keep you from driving your car.

Most of our fears are way less serious than a car fire, though. Let's see…

Talking to people.

Risk: people will laugh at me.
Cost of damage: zero money, a bit of ego.
Probability: pretty dang low, really.
Cost to mitigate: well, if you consider my usual mitigation method of hiding in my shell, way too high! But in reality, negligible.
Conclusion: talk to people.

Starting a business.

Risk: wasting a ton of time and effort, only to fail.
Cost of damage: $3000 for coaching, plus six months' living expenses if I quit my job, minus all the fun I'm having and all the awesome stuff I'm learning. So, practically nothing, in a way.
Probability: The way I'm doing it, I'd say maybe 30%? I don't think I'll fail; at worst, it will take longer than I wish.
Cost to mitigate: a few extra months at the job, a bigger savings account, or connections to get a new regular job if it doesn't work out. Bleh.
Conclusion: start a business.

The more concrete we can get with our fears and their relationship with reality, the better decisions we can make. In the end, fortune favors the bold. It's way more interesting to try something, even if it doesn't work out, than to stay on the sidelines. And that's how you learn and grow.

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Published on March 18, 2011 09:26 • 9 views

March 10, 2011

How to be Happy ebook cover

I have some super-exciting news: the ebook I've been working on since November is finally finished! Today is the big day when I get to share it with all of you.

Do you wish you could enjoy life more? Do you feel like something is missing, like there has to be more to life? At the same time, do you feel guilty for being dissatisfied when you could have it much worse?

You need to know this stuff!

The roots of unhappiness and 6 common mistakes people make when seeking happiness
The mechanics of happiness and how it really works
10 faulty assumptions that may be holding you back
How to let go of old memories, thoughts, and beliefs that stand in your way
10 tools you can use to create genuine happiness now
How to build purpose and meaning into your life (no religion necessary)
How to go from stressed out to chilled out
How to feel great and enjoy life on an everyday basis

This book will tell you how you can be truly, genuinely happy on a daily basis. I've gathered the best from academic research, books, and my own experience to create this simple yet comprehensive happiness guide, and it's yours free.

You can build the life you want and be happy. It's not a trick or a scam, it's not a bunch of silly nonsense you tell yourself and try to believe, and it's not outside your power. It's real, and it's a gift you can give yourself. Get this book and make it happen.

Option 1

Give me the book now!

Download the screen-friendly version now!

Cost: free!

Option 2

I want it all!

The book (screen-friendly version)
The print-friendly version, arranged so you can print it out, fold it in half, and bind it into a book in about 10 minutes–read anywhere or give as a gift!
The companion guide full of thought-provoking exercises to help you get a faster start on the road to happiness
Perpetual updates and more great info through the 17000 Days newsletter

Cost: free!

Can you believe this is also free? Sign up below to get it all.

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If you're already signed up for the newsletter, you should have a copy in your mailbox waiting for you.

Please share

If you enjoy the book, please pass it on. Twitter, Facebook, email, blog, carrier pigeon, whatever! Let's spread the word and help more people be happy!

Meanwhile, I somehow lost my mind and decided that just launching a book wasn't enough, so I also took a dare in attempt to conquer my fear of video and public humiliation. (Is that redundant? Probably.)

I do a little demonstration of how to bind the print version of the ebook, which I'm really psyched about. Ebooks are great, but to me, there is just something about having a paper version with pages you can turn.

The binding is super simple and would not have made such a long video if I knew what I was doing. It really does take ten minutes; the video shows almost the entire process real-time, which is a bit excessive in retrospect.

Lessons learned from my very first brush with YouTube:

Like everything else, it's not as scary as it seems before you try it.
Try out tiny snippets of video first, don't just shoot the whole thing before you lose your nerve.
If you flip the camera sideways, you're going to have to figure out how to rotate the video back later. Duh. (I did that so you could see my head when I introduce myself but also see what I'm doing.)
Don't mumble!
Seven minutes of video can take half an hour to process on a brand new computer! (This is why I didn't just start over. Overall, I spent about two hours waiting for the video to be processed by various things, between rotating and getting it into a reasonable format.)
Take a hint from cooking shows: do more prep in advance so you can skip the repetitive stuff and cover everything in far less time.

Overall, I don't think I'll be making a big transition to video posts any time soon! And I have to apologize for the horrible audio. But it was a good chance to conquer a fear and step outside the comfort zone, so I think it was worth doing.

Note: In care you're worried, I do include a one-page set of instructions with the complete package, so you don't have to watch the video to learn how to do the binding. Phew!

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Published on March 10, 2011 23:38 • 17 views

March 4, 2011

Are you stressed out? Have you been saying yes to too many things, biting off more than you can chew, juggling faster and faster, freaking out?

Or maybe you have a low-grade tension or grumpiness buzzing through your body, needing only an idiot driver or one more person making one more request to ignite into a towering flame of rage and profanity.

Yeah, I'm there. Although I love many of the things I'm doing, there are others I don't love, and too many overall. (And meetings! So many meetings! WTF, job? Why now???) Whenever something really bothers me, I look for the best advice on fixing it and then pass it on in a blog post. But in this case, who am I kidding?

We all know how to cure this, really. Exercise. Get more sleep. Eat better. Don't procrastinate, and make fewer commitments from now on.

So instead, I give you a 5-minute assignment. Listen to this video of the ocean. Watch, too, if you want.

There's a reason this is trite: it works. You may not be able to solve your problems, but you can feel a little better. Feeling better is better! So why not?

Ideally, you might sit still, watch, listen, and do absolutely nothing else. If you can do that, great! This is another form of cheater meditation, because even if your eyes are closed, you'll know when time is up because the sound will stop. The nice thing is, there will be no harsh sound like if you used a timer or alarm, just silence.

If you're too wound up for that, just let it play on the side while you fidget around or work on stuff. I've listened to it three times while writing this blog post, and it's taken me from near-meltdown to near-dreamland.

This is my gift to you, dear readers. Happy Friday.

Next Friday, get ready for an even bigger gift: my free eBook makes its debut! It's called How to be Happy (No Fairy Dust or Moonbeams Required). There will be a special bonus for newsletter subscribers, so sign up now to make sure you get it. (Psst: the newsletter is free, too, and no spam ever. Sign up below.)

Photo credit: the photo associated with this post on the main page was taken by bark on Flickr, and is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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Published on March 04, 2011 05:00 • 21 views

February 28, 2011

Dark, scary woods represent fear to some

Image by WTL photos on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Spoiler alert: check me out on Fear, Exposed!

Fear is what keeps us from doing what we want. It keeps us paralyzed.

Why are we so afraid? For myself and probably anyone reading this, we have safe, cushy lives. Our chances of going hungry, being eaten by tigers, or falling off a cliff are vanishingly small. So are we happy? No, we get busy fearing smaller things instead. Even when the things we fear are excruciatingly tiny and ridiculous, the fear can still stop us if we let it.

Just to show you how stupid this can be, I'll give you a list of things I was afraid of as recently as last week. Laugh if you want. Then I'll tell you how I overcame them so you can try it.

Skype. (I'm serious.) I developed a "should already know this" complex about it. Then my boyfriend told me his mom, who is in her 80s, was already using it! How embarrassing would it be if I couldn't get it working?!

Now that I've tried Skype, I realize just how silly I was to be afraid of it. How did I get over it? I really wanted to talk to Lach from The Art of Audacity, and he lives in Thailand.

Sometimes, if you want something badly enough, that's all it takes, especially if the fear is small.

Talking to people. This explains some of my fear with Skype. I'm so introverted, I scored 100% introvert on Myers-Briggs.

But what am I really afraid of? Most people are nice and want to help. This is not 9th grade–nobody is going to put a thumb tack on your chair, call you names, or make fun of you just for being you.

Looking more closely, I realize that the two biggest fears I have with talking to people are that I won't know what to say and that they'll want something from me.

If the conversation peters out, there are two easy solutions: end it, or ask a question about something that interests the other person. Done.

If the other person wants something, you don't have to say yes. If you know that, you have nothing to fear here. Make "let me think about it" or "no" your default response, and remember that you are not responsible for solving all the world's problems. You're free to say yes only to the things you really want to do. Once you realize that, you're good to go.

Sometimes breaking fears down and picking apart the things behind them is all it takes.

Failing at business. As I mentioned earlier, I've joined Jonathan Mead's Six Month "Quit Your Job and Do What You Love" coaching program.

I love the idea of supporting myself with my own business: being able to set my schedule, choose my projects, and spend most of my time doing work I love. However, the business part has always seemed like black magic.

For this fear, getting help from someone who knows what he's doing has been golden. We've worked together for about a month now, and he's blown the cover off the grand mystery of how to build a successful business. He's helped me define what I have to offer people, and he's helped me see the things I need to do to make this work. He's even given me a good order to do them in. Also, he acts like of course I can do this, why not?

I think that attitude has rubbed off on me, because I'm no longer afraid I can't make it happen.

For fears that are big and nebulous like this one was, structure helps a lot, and advice and encouragement from someone who has been there is even better.

Guest posting on other people's blogs. I've heard since before I even started this blog that guest posting is the best way to get the word out about your blog. I love what I'm doing here and think it's valuable, so I want to reach as many people as I can, yet I never made a move. Why?

Trying to get a guest post on someone's blog combines many fears: talking to someone, possibly someone I don't know; not knowing everything; asking for help; possibly being rejected; and possibly lacking that elusive coolness factor.

I don't know how long I would have waited to try this if Coach Jonathan hadn't assigned me three guest post pitches in one week. I procrastinated my hardest, but when I found myself still alive the morning they were due, I knew I had to either do them, or let myself and him down. I wrote the pitches.

I discovered two amazing things. Once I finished writing the pitches and sent them to Jonathan, I caught myself wondering expectantly if the recipients had responded yet. I hadn't even sent the pitches to them.

I was terrified of contacting these people, but once I took the time to think about what ideas might be a good fit for them, I shifted from fear to eagerness.

Once I sent the pitches to the bloggers, I realized another thing: I was more afraid they'd say yes than no. (If they said yes, I had work to do, and what if it wasn't good enough?)

Suddenly I was seeing guest posting the same way as any other time I've submitted things for publication. Sometimes they get accepted, sometimes they get rejected. A rejection just means that particular idea or way of presenting it isn't what those people need at this moment. Try the same people with a different idea, and send the same idea to other people. That's it.

Once you realize that's the worst that can happen, there truly is no peril here. For irrational fears, defining the worst case scenario often dissipates the fear by making its foolishness obvious.

Modern web technology. I've known the web since its early days. Back then, I was on top of all the hot stuff. But I ended up doing other things, and 2011 found me knowing nothing about PHP, CSS, Ruby, e-commerce, Drupal, Joomla, et al.

I hate admitting I don't know stuff. The fear really boils down to inadequacy. Web stuff used to be my thing, plus I'm a PhD, so I think I should know everything.

A comment on this blog broke the impasse. I mentioned this fear before, and one of my friends wrote that I don't have to catch up on everything that's happened in the last 15 years, just learn the current stuff!

Whoa! Clearly, it's true. It took me a while to act on it, but now, when I want to know how to do something, I pick up a book and start playing with it. Oh right, it's just programming–I can do that.

Sometimes, redefining the scope is what it takes. We don't have to know everything, and once we learn a little, the whole thing loses the scary mystique of the unknown.

My project ending at work. I've had my ups and downs with my job, but overall, it's treated me well, let's not forget the money! On top of that, I've enjoyed the project I've been working on for the past year.

That project is ending, so I'm nervous that I'll be laid off. What if I can't find another job?

The budget where I work seems to be all right, though, and I've been doing a good job. That leaves worrying about being stuck on an awful new project. Even if it's a great project, it will be different, and that alone is scary!

For this one, I just had to wait it out. I got one new project, and although it involves a crapload of meetings and teleconferences (hate!), it seems to be pretty good work. In fact, I'm learning JSP, AJAX, Eclipse, Subversion, and two graph-drawing libraries, none of which I've used before.

Normally, all that would scare the pants off me, but I've decided to adopt a growth mindset and be excited to learn all this new stuff. I've complained that my skills are out of date–here's my chance to catch up on several things, and they're going to pay me to do it!

Sometimes, a change in attitude is what it takes to turn a fear into an opportunity.

Succeeding at business but going broke personally. Say the coaching works, and I achieve my dream of supporting myself and quit my job. Woohoo!

But, that makes me a self-employed person, and everybody knows their finances are a mess! It's all ups and downs. What if I can't make ends meet?

Luckily, I stumbled across a book about this, and it spelled out exactly what to do to make sure you have enough money to cover emergencies, pay your taxes, stay out of debt, and save for things like retirement, a new car, or a trip to Tahiti.

There's no need to have screwed up finances just because you work for yourself. If you get paid irregularly, use percentages instead of fixed dollar amounts per month. Each time you get paid, whether it's $50 or $5000, immediately move appropriate percentages for taxes, retirement, and your emergency fund into special accounts for those things. If you're saving for other big things, set up an account and a percentage for each one. If you have more than a month's expenses left over, put it in a holding account so you won't spend it all. Then it will be there for the next lean month.

That's it! It's simple arithmetic. Obviously, if you don't have enough money coming in month after month, you need to do something about that, but otherwise, there's no reason a self-employed person should have worse finances than anyone else.

In this case, identifying my faulty assumption and looking at the facts were enough to dispel the fear.

The good news, and the bad news, is we're statistically more likely to die from sitting on our asses and eating too many french fries than of doing anything.

It's easy to look at these fears and think "well, duh, those are nothing to be afraid of," but almost everything we fear is like that. Shed a little light on it, start defining it and breaking it down, learn what's really going on and what you need to know, and the fear often evaporates. It's amazing.

If you want to feel a lot of this quickly, do a lot of interesting new challenges in a short time. The effect builds on itself, and it feels great.

Oh yeah, and about guest posting? I would have thought the one thing scarier than writing a guest post would be writing a guest post about my fears and weaknesses, especially on the blog of one of my major, super-successful heroes, but guess what? I did! It was surprisingly easy. Check it out–I think you'll like it.

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Published on February 28, 2011 07:34 • 11 views

February 18, 2011

A man doing nothing

Image by SaZeOd on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I have a love/hate relationship with minimalism.

I think some people get a little carried away with minimalism–really, why should I care how many t-shirts you have and what colors and neck styles they are? And why does all the underwear count as only one thing, and furniture and kitchen tools don't count at all, but pairs of shoes all count separately?

Does it really make sense to pare down to only one notebook and pen (or none!) if you write for a living, just so you can meet the magic

I've contemplated introducing my own arbitrary counting scheme. (Car, other car, house, contents of house: 4 things. Eat my dust, 100-thingers!)

But I think minimalism overall has a lot to offer if you don't get silly about it. Not wasting your money on buying things to feel better? Having few enough things that your house is peaceful and orderly? Consuming consciously? I can definitely get behind all that.

Over on Becoming Minimalist, I read a guest post by Courtney Carver about the Land of Enough. I think this is an expression of the best minimalism has to offer. Her premise is that, instead of thinking of ourselves as living in the land of plenty, we should think of ourselves as living in the Land of Enough. Instead of striving for more, more, more, we should find out what we really need and become content with that.

The Land of Enough boils down to a peaceful, satisfying existence.

In the Land of Enough, there are no credit card bills or retail therapy. When you're happy, you don't need to spend all that money, and not having the debt eliminates tons of stress.

In the Land of Enough, there is no rushing around, processed food, or clutter. Instead of watching tv or going to shows, people entertain themselves by reading, conversing, or doing things.

It sounds like a utopian dream world in a way. To me, that's the number one thing missing from conventional life in our society. It's gotten significantly worse in recent years as connection to the internet has become more and more pervasive in our lives. Now, even if you're just waiting for the elevator, you can Google something on your smart phone. It's great that we have access to more information than ever in the history of the world, and I love that the gatekeepers are becoming obsolete, but I think we're about to lose something really important if we're not careful: the ability to be. Not be entertained, not be important, not be productive, just be.

A few years ago, when I was freaking out and heading for a meltdown, I was directed to take half an hour every evening and just sit on the couch and do nothing. Don't watch tv, don't grade papers, don't make lists, don't do anything.

"What?!" I thought. "How the hell am I going to do that? How will I sit still with all this work hanging over my head? If I manage to sit still, how will I stay awake? That won't work at all!"

If you like the idea of a more peaceful life but feel the same way about doing nothing, let me tell you how I did it.

I cheated. As soon as I sat down, my cat jumped in my lap, and I stared into space and petted her. What do you know, it is possible to do nothing for half an hour! In fact, it's pretty easy with a cat's help, and quite addictive. And if you fall asleep, who cares? Nobody is going to show up and give you an F in contemplation. You probably needed the rest.

If you can't handle half an hour, start with five minutes. Or, start by taking walks with no electronics or companions to build up your spacing out muscles, then work on stationary nothing-doing.

I still think starting a to-quit list and eliminating as much scheduling and obligation as you can is the best thing to do, but that takes time and needs to be customized for your life. I aim to have no more than two things per week happening at specific times; such a schedule would be completely impossible for someone with meetings and kids in activities. Even for me, I'm suddenly on a new project at work with a standing teleconference at noon every Tuesday, and it's really harshing my mellow, but there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it while I'm on this project, so here I am: scheduled at noon on Tuesdays.

No matter what kind of life you have and how tightly scheduled it is, taking the time to space out is something you can do for yourself if it's important to you. I highly recommend it.

I think a lot of people get caught up in the vicious cycle of buying stuff, eating whatever they can find fast, and rushing around–it's hard to escape. It's the default mode in our society. If you don't do those things, you're weird. I know: pretty much everyone at my office thinks I'm weird.

But then again, taking charge of your life, sculpting it into what you want, and being happy are also outliers in our society. Given the alternative, I'll happily be weird every day and twice on Sundays. Anyone want to join me?

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Published on February 18, 2011 09:28 • 12 views

February 9, 2011

Skipping work to walk on my favorite mountain

Hey, Cameron. You realize if we played by the rules right now we'd be in gym? --Ferris Bueller

Sometimes I feel like life is getting away from me and I'm running to catch up, but it's a train and I'm an out-of-shape cubicle-dweller, and this isn't a movie. I don't even have a horse, let alone dramatic effect to make sure I barely make it so the exciting scene can happen where I leap from car to car until I get to the front and punch out the engineer. There's just no way my slow little desk-sitting legs are catching up with this train.

Do you ever feel that way?

Well, today is my birthday, and I decided to quit chasing the train and play hooky instead.

I highly recommend doing this occasionally. Think about Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Why was that movie so epic? Because he got it exactly right! "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

And then he did something about it! He gathered his two closest friends and took them on an epic adventure. They went to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Sears Tower, had lunch at one of the finest restaurants in Chicago, joined the Von Steuben Day Parade. They drove Cameron's dad's 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California.

Thinking about how I would most like to seize this day, it's not the Sears Tower or the Ferrari (or even my Miata). It's a long walk in the woods, a lot of time alone, and an art project. I've been wanting to make a collage/watercolor mess for weeks.

I believe some intense chocolate cake is also in order.

What about you? If you could do anything in the world today, what do you want most of all to do? If you knew the world was ending tomorrow, what would you do today? It may not be practical to do that stuff every day, but it's a waste not to do it at all. Can you take today off to do it? If not, what about tomorrow?

Update on the ebook: I meant to release it today, but I decided to change direction a little bit, so I'm reworking it. It will be ready soon. Meanwhile, why not subscribe to make sure you don't miss it? It's free free free!

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Published on February 09, 2011 09:38 • 25 views