I almost killed a guy the other day. It made me very happy.
Emphasis on the word almost, of course. I didn’t kill him, even though I started driving just as he was coming up on my right side while I was looking left. Any time you come close to a major problem and you miss it by inches, it’s a good day.
I’m trying to pay more attention to these good days, the near-misses that bounce into my win column, because it’s a great way to get more enjoyment out of life. If I got to the pharmacy two minutes after they closed and nobody would open the door to give me my prescription, I’d be talking about it for days. If I got caught in traffic and missed my flight and I couldn’t get a refund on the ticket or the hotel room, I’d be complaining for weeks. But, if I had the chance to kill a person and I didn’t take it? Crickets.
People write, and read, all kinds of guides to happiness—how to find it, how to nurture it, how to maintain it—but there’s no mystery to this stuff. Happiness comes from feeling fortunate and feeling fortunate comes from a lack of entitlement. Nobody owes me anything, God isn’t required to save me from killing pedestrians, and I don’t get any mulligans when I screw up. When something goes well, it’s a gift, whether I worked hard for it or it flew through an open window.
This happiness thing turns out to be ridiculously easy, so easy that I thought, at first, there must be something huge I was missing. Turns out, though, it’s a WYSIWYG. In business, everyone talks about making customers happy by exceeding their expectations, but there are two parts to that equation. The first part is the expectations themselves. The lower they are, the easier it is to blow right past them.
This isn’t a game of pretending to enjoy it when you fall into a manure pit or thinking it’s great to be fired. Crap is crap, sometimes literally. But you don’t have to enjoy a situation in order to feel fortunate that it didn’t turn out worse. And you don’t need to be Pollyanna to recognize when little things are going your way.
Things do go our way almost all the time, every day. Starting with the moment we open our eyes in the morning, take a shower with hot water, brew a cup of coffee, etc. etc. etc., the list of wins is almost endless. Recognizing and appreciating those wins in real time is the key to a happy life.
As I look back on it, my clock has reset to zero at least eight or ten times. I was hit by a truck while in high school, but relatively little of my brain ended up on the street. Art Drake probably saved my life in college when he stopped me from cutting some live electrical wires with a pair of scissors. I don’t remember exactly if it was Kirk James or Dwight Grimestad who stopped me from walking into traffic while on my phone in New York, but it was one of them and I am grateful to both.
The list goes on. There was the time I suddenly realized I was walking less than a foot from the edge of the Grand Canyon, the day I fell asleep at the wheel on the Kennedy, the morning a semi drove through my Dodge Dart… I follow Cheating Death on Instagram but, now that I think about it, maybe they should be following me.
After I didn’t kill the guy on the bicycle, the rest of my morning was more upbeat than it had been before I drove out of the garage. I hope the cyclist enjoyed his day as much as I did.
The real key to a long life, wearing out my Fitbit, and a few new rules that you won’t hear about on Bill Maher’s show, among the lessons learned this week...
We finally decided to get a second car after living as a one-car household for more than five years, diving deeply into the brave new world of computers perched on radial tires. Ten months later, I am almost done with the owner’s manual and, maybe, I will be ready to drive this thing before the lease runs out.
As you might expect, the car has sensors that beep when someone is walking behind the car or when we’re getting too close to the car in front of us, when there’s something in our blind spot and when we’re about to hit a shopping cart in the parking lot. All the new technology is very cool, and very, very noisy.
Still, most of these features fall into the category of nice-to-have, not essential. What I really need isn’t in the car, yet, but the automaker who delivers on my must-haves will earn a customer for life. For instance, I absolutely need…
Beyond these innovative accessories, consumers will clamor for my soon-to-be-patented water cannons and poop blasters. This is a gold mine for the first car company to compensate me for my brilliance.
The biggest problem with technology is that it’s developed by people who don’t get out much. Spend enough years on the road with crazy people, though, and the horizons expand astronomically.
Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, beginning the period of introspection and hope that constitutes the Days of Awe. The rituals are essentially unchanged year to year, as they have been all my life and as they were more than a century ago for my grandparents in Poland. One of these repeated rituals is the reading of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a story that has troubled me since I was about ten.
As related in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah finally have a child, Hagar and Ishmael have settled in Egypt, and all is well, until God comes up with one final test for his favorite human.
Roughly translated from the original Aramaic, God says, “Take your son, Isaac, and make him a human sacrifice for me.” And Abraham, who has argued with God on behalf of the evil sodomites in Sodom, doesn’t argue about sacrificing the innocent son who is supposed to carry on the faith. He doesn’t discuss it with Sarah, either, even though Sarah waited 90 years to have a child and, by the way, this is her son, too.
Nope, Abraham takes his son to Mt. Moriah and binds him on the altar where Isaac, the Passive Patriarch, doesn’t appear to object. The sacrifice is about to be completed when an angel intervenes. Abraham has passed the test, the angel declares, and everything will be great from here.
Now, when you’re a kid in Hebrew school, the teachers present this story as a wonderful example of faith. Abraham was so loyal to God that he was willing to murder his own son, simply because God said to do it. And every kid in the classroom is thinking, “I really hope my dad isn’t that faithful.”
As an adult, sitting in the synagogue and listening to the story each year, you get a chance to think things through. First, there’s the question of whether Abraham passed the test or not. Yes, the angel says he passed, but that’s the angel talking, not God. After this point, the Torah doesn’t mention God talking to Abraham again.
Ditto for Sarah and Isaac. As far as we can tell, neither of them is on speaking terms with Abraham after he “passes” this test of faith. Sarah appears to be living in a different town than Abraham when she dies. Abraham’s servant, not Abraham, finds a wife for Isaac and introduces Isaac to her. After the Akedah, the Torah records no interactions between Abraham and his son, or his wife, or any angels, for that matter.
At the end of his life, Abraham seems to be estranged from the family that will carry on his legacy. Families, if you include Ishmael’s line, as nearly 2 billion Muslims do. Abraham has created a new faith, won many followers, amassed wealth, and claimed the Almighty God as his BFF, but now he seems to be alone. (Yes, he has a new wife and concubines and children, but none of those people is part of his Great Narrative.)
In a more modern context, we might see Abraham as an entrepreneur of sorts, founding a great enterprise known as monotheism and creating a personal estate that appears to be of significant value. And, like many founders, his personal and familial relationships suffer along the way. Did he regret that fact at the end of his life? Did he consider the woulda coulda shouldas that might have led to the same end with less estrangement? Did he think about it at all?
Like Abraham, the rest of us mortals make countless trade-offs on our journeys. Some are great and some minor, some by action and some by acquiescence. Some days, we betray our beliefs and our best instincts so cavalierly that we don't even recognize what we've done. It's impossible to remember all of them, which is probably a good thing, since we'd be shocked and embarrassed by our official scorecards.
That's why I always find the Akedah to be personally challenging, even though I haven't founded any faiths recently. The stakes and the situations are different for me than they were for Abraham, of course, but the question is eternally the same:
What am I willing to sacrifice, and upon which altar?
I have much to ponder as we enter the Days of Awe.
Sometimes, you need to stop the car, get out and watch for a while.
I was driving along the California coast on a day with dozens of surfers just off the shore, so I parked the car and took in the show. A few hundred feet out from the beach, the surfers straddled their boards and waited. And waited. And waited. I’d see a wave coming up behind them and think they would try to ride it into shore, but they let it pass. I’d see another wave and think, “Yeah, this is the one they’ve been waiting for,” but they’d let that one pass, as well.
Finally, after three or five minutes of this, a surfer would climb aboard a board and try to keep her balance for about 15 seconds. Roughly 99% of the time, the surfers would fall into the water well short of their goals, then paddle back out to wait again for a suitable wave.
The whole process was fascinating and challenging. Why this wave and not that one? Why is this surfer so close to shore and the other one further out? What makes this place a good spot for surfing and that other area down the beach has no surfers at all? After waiting five minutes for the right wave, does the pressure build to grab whatever comes next, or to wait even longer for the absolutely perfect opportunity?
It occurred to me that the surfers were experts in the art of waiting. They were patient, studying the specifics of the waves, weighing the ratio of potential enjoyment to missed opportunity. Riding the wave is part of the experience, but it quickly became clear that the waiting, sizing up the next crest, timing the action...all of these were critical to the experience. It was like watching a batter waiting for the right pitch, sizing up the pitcher, looking for the perfect moment.
As with much of life, it reminded me of business challenges. When is it too soon, or too late, to make an investment, make a hire, or let someone go? How do we size up our opportunities when both risk and reward are rushing toward us, usually intertwined? How can we master the art of waiting for the big fat pitch? And, after we get our results, how can we analyze the process unemotionally, avoiding the temptation to recast our experiences into an unbroken string of successes?
I had a million questions, but I suspect I'd need to learn to surf in order to get the answers I sought. Even without answers, though, the session was educational. It’s exciting to watch a video of a guy barreling through the surf without wiping out, just as it's inspiring to watch a business leader at the top of his game. Still, those feats are even more impressive when you’ve watched all the failures that led up to the success. We spend much of our lives watching the highlight reels, but the real story unfolds outside our view.