Right on the heels of Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control reported another decline in U.S. life expectancy, driven largely by a soaring suicide rate and opiate overdoses. It's a national trend, but also very local, possibly involving our friends and family.
Year-end melancholy is no surprise, really. It’s normal for people to get depressed as three gigantic downers converge to cancel out the joy that’s supposed to come with family gatherings, shopping sprees and wassail.
It starts with Thanksgiving, which promises to deliver the all-American trifecta: food, family, and football. But Uncle Billy was passed out on the couch before halftime, Dad and Aunt Bev kept arguing about who gets the silverware when Granny dies, and Aunt Sadie wouldn’t stop griping about her daughter’s choices in men. Then there’s Gramps, who started every other sentence with, “I’m not a racist, but…”
Even better, all of them are coming over again for Christmas dinner. Yipeeeeeeeeee! Uncle Billy swears he won’t be bungee jumping into the egg nog, Aunt Bev and Dad have promised to wait until Granny dies before they duel with her shrimp forks, and Aunt Sadie says, fine, she never wanted to have grandchildren, anyway. No promises from Gramps, though.
Fun fact: By the time Christmas rolled around, even Norman Rockwell had given up on painting family dinners. Clearly, he couldn’t figure out how to draw “Freedom from Relatives.”
Then there is the solstice, which brings the shortest stretch of daylight on the calendar. Of course, almost nobody will notice, because the sun is only out during working hours and the cloud cover is non-stop in December. (If Jesus had been born in Chicago, the Magi would still be looking for him.) Lack of sunlight leads to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which affects about 10% of the population, and then they pass it on to 100% of their friends. Who says this isn’t the season for sharing?
Finally, the end of the year delivers the coup de grace, as people consider unkept resolutions, unmet goals, and unpaid credit card bills that will be delivered by forklift in January. There’s no better way to say Happy New Year than with a bright, shiny, new debt-consolidation loan.
Meanwhile, we’re inundated all month with happyjoyfunjoyhappy posts from all our friends on social media, and every one of them is simply having a wonderful Christmastime. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re alone in our sadness, that we are the singular despair in a world of glee.
People feel isolated when they travel through a dark place, because they can’t see the friends who are alongside them on a parallel journey. Each of us has the opportunity to shine a light, to illuminate the journey, to help them break free of their isolation. It might be as simple as a “how are you” that’s more than a platitude. It might be an assurance that there’s no stigma to seeking help. It might be a coffee break that includes a ton of listening. It can simply be a reminder that they have a friend, that they aren’t really alone.
At this time of year, that perspective can be a lifesaver.
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Okay, so maybe I missed the boat just a little bit on this one.
When the girls were young, they loved the weeks after Thanksgiving when the Sunday papers were filled with “toy mazagines.”
They scoured the circulars like they were researchers at the Library of Congress, and the item they circled most often was Nintendo. Neither girl was big on Barbie or all that girly stuff like Little Miss Make-up and Junior Nail Salon, which saved me from joining in the fun for all ages and the blackmail-worthy photos that would follow.
What they did want, though, was a Nintendo console. Wanted, wanted, wanted, needed, needed, hadtohaveitbecauseitwasthemostimportantandbestestgameever. And I knew they would play it, because they loved to play Super Mario—or maybe they were just Mario Brothers then—at other kids' homes. You could take Stephanie to her cousins’ house, plop her down in front of the Nintendo and watch her get to level 847 within minutes. She wouldn’t get around to learning to read for another year or two, but learning Nintendo was worth the effort.
Dad, on the other hand, viewed video games as a waste of time and a missed opportunity for learning. Educational games, smart games, games like chess and that thing where you flipped the cards and had to remember where the matches were—those were the games for my girls.
So I decided to let the other kids rot out their minds while I gave my children the gift of a refined intellect, superior analytical skills and only a remote risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
I bought them (imagine a drum rolllllllllllll….) Socrates, the “educational video system” that “stimulates children’s minds” and “helps them become better students.” And all of it was true! Through Socrates, the girls learned some incredible lessons that have stayed with them and influenced their thinking to this day. Lessons like:
Ah, the lessons that last a lifetime.
Also, Socrates provided a lifetime of opportunities for the girls to remind their father that they were, um, disappointed by his choice. They capitalized on that opportunity relentlessly, telling strangers everywhere that they were cheated out of a normal childhood, condemned to solitary confinement with a Socrates console.
"Look, Lin-Manuel Miranda just won his 9,000th Tony Award. He must have had Socrates when he was a kid. Isn’t that right, dad?"
"Yes, Mr. cabdriver, I'm 27 years old and I can sing the entire ABC song because my dad got me Socrates. Aren't you so proud of me, dad?"
"I’m glad your surgery was a success, but getting new kidneys isn’t nearly as great a gift as when my dad bought me Socrates. Hey, dad, remember that year?"
I get it, kids. You’re being just a bit sarcastic, aren’t you?
I can’t say I regret the choice, though, because Socrates has been a running gag and a family story for a long time. Many years of therapy have relieved the girls of some of the post-traumatic disorders they developed without Nintendo. And my daughters are now so much more sensitive to the needs of others, mostly because I destroyed their dreams and hopes when they were tots.
A couple of years ago, the girls bought me a Socrates console they found on e-Bay or Craig’s List or somewhere. We couldn't play with it, of course, because it doesn't have a USB port or an HDMI cable any other connector that would work with a video screen today.
But connectivity isn't the real reason I haven't played with Socrates yet. Truth be told, I’m waiting for them to get me a Nintendo.
(While the kids are out shopping for my Nintendo console, you can give me another great gift by sharing this post with a friend or two and, by all means, subscribing to our occasional rants. Just click here to subscribe, and thanks much for reading.)
One of the highlights of my mentoring work with entrepreneurs is the day they decide they don’t want to be entrepreneurs anymore. That might seem counterproductive, of course, but it’s a decision that can enrich the rest of their lives.
Social media sites, especially sites like LinkedIn, are filled with odes to entrepreneurs who tirelessly battle the naysayers and emerge victorious in their crusade for success. Start-up founders are exhorted repeatedly: Never give up, never lose your drive, never accept that it can’t be done, never surrender your dream. Never never never. Ever.
You can, um, pivot, 500 times, but pivoting is for pioneers and exiting is for losers. If you take a different path, you’re a quitter, doomed to be a drone in a corporate world, a follower, a lackey. You’ll be thinking inside the box, wrapped in a corporate cocoon, a drone, a minion, tortured by un-shifted paradigms and un-pushed envelopes. Simply stated, you’re a failure.
Entrepreneurship has become a religion in the business world, with all the zealotry that drives true believers. The entrepreneur is Erik the Red, Chuck Yeager, Davy Crockett (before that Alamo unpleasantness), Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur…the superhero who will lead us into the future. Or maybe entrepreneurship isn't a real religion; perhaps it's more of a cult.
Entrepreneurship, like bungee jumping and fourth marriages, is an irrational act. The hours are intolerable, the odds for success are abysmal, financial strains are constant, and social/family ties atrophy. Most people who take this path are unbalanced. That doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill, although I do have my suspicions about several, but they often live outside the norms for factors like risk tolerance and ego.
Frequently, I’ll meet a younger person who is swept up in the mania surrounding entrepreneurship. She wants to be a part of the creative process, the disruption, the new frontier for business. She has an idea, usually an app, and she’s ready to change the world.
When it’s a person I’m mentoring, we examine the full range of issues connected to the adventure—and to the adventurer. What will it take to make this a viable business? How can the process be systematized or accelerated? How can cash be charred instead of burned? What are the options for timing and structure of an exit?
The most critical conversation in all of this is about the trade-offs inherent in starting a business. The owner will be foregoing the opportunity to advance in a traditional career in order to roll the dice at an all-or-nothing table. Often, the owner will be taking on loans to finance the first steps of the venture, delaying by years or decades their opportunities for financial security. Almost always, their bucket lists grow dramatically with everyday goals like travel, family, home ownership or binge watching.
Sometimes, the owners make a rational assessment of the situation and decide to move forward. Sometimes, they make a rational assessment of the situation and decide to end the venture.
Maybe they determine that the business won’t be profitable enough to justify the investment or that they will have too low an equity stake by the time they get to the finish line. Maybe they look at their own parents’ relationships, or availability to them as children, and decide that’s where they will make their biggest investment of blood and toil.
Whatever path they choose, they’ll have a solid foundation for their decision and an improved likelihood of success. They won’t quit. They’ll make a decision about the value to be received for the value invested, and then they’ll choose their next steps.
Meanwhile, online, there’s a bro culture surrounding entrepreneurship. Guys post about how hard they work or how little sleep they get or the trails they are blazing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are trying to convince themselves that they deserve a seat with the cool kids. It’s reminiscent of high school, at times, and I hope they grow out of it.
There are many paths to success, many ways to change the world, and many ways to have a fulfilling life. When someone I am mentoring makes an informed choice about the right path, it’s a glorious day.
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Thank God the pressure is finally off and I can return to normal life. I’ve lost the lottery again.
We probably could have predicted this, and not simply because my odds of winning were roughly one in 250 bazillion. I live in Chicago and winners never buy their tickets in a big city. It’s always someplace like Escape, Arkansas or Ignore, Idaho, never Manhattan or Los Angeles or Boston or Miami. Or Chicago.
But a potential jackpot of $1.6 billion (slightly more than I earn in a week) beckoned and the guy behind the counter at the Qwik-E-Mart promised to sell me the winning ticket, so I took a shot. Almost immediately, my life fell apart. My days were consumed with research about tax rates and the relative benefits of Swiss banks versus gigantic cookie jars. At night, I’d mourn the death of my favorite excuse—“We can’t afford it,”—and dread the IOUs I’d written against that phrase.
My future looked even worse. After I won, which lawyer would I call to set up the LLC? I know a ton of lawyers, mostly a bunch of average Joes who couldn’t get a job after college, so they went to a graduate school that lets them call themselves esquires. I was guaranteed to sadden at least 40 of them and at least as many accountants, who are already sad because they don’t get to call themselves something cool like ESQUIRE. Of course, I could send each of them a million bucks to ease the pain, but it’s the principle of the thing.
Then I had to wrestle with the challenge of sharing with my family and friends, plus guys I met on the bus who would be expecting the new car I promised if/when I won the jackpot. I don’t remember who most of those people are, but I’ll bet they’d remember me after learning I was the big winner.
And whatever amount I give them wouldn’t be enough, cuz they’re all greedy, moneygrubbing, spoiled, avaricious parasites who will never be satisfied until they bleed me dry. Oh, did I say that out loud? Oops.
Everything in my life would change with that kind of money. I’d need to dump all my loser friends and find a much better class of people to alienate. I’d still be short and asthmatic, and my personality would be, um, an acquired taste, but an increasingly large number of people would somehow find a way to overlook those chasms. Money might not buy happiness, but it buys tons of toleration.
Hamburgers with fries would become a thing of the past as I switched to steak tartare with pomme frites. Of course, I wouldn’t have to buy any of my meals, because lawyers, accountants, stock brokers, real estate agents…pretty much everyone would be anxious to show me a good time.
With all those free meals, I’d regain all the weight I’ve lost from working with my trainer for the past couple of years, but that’s not a problem for the grotesquely wealthy. I’d just hire some guy with 6% body fat to do my workouts for me. Finally, with enough money, I would learn how to delegate.
I’d need to learn new skills, like complaining about the taxes I owe on money I didn’t earn, and keeping a straight face when I tell people I really miss the simpler time when I had to make do without a Lamborghini. (Sorry, two Lamborghinis, because one is always in the shop.)
And we’d need to move, of course, because the condo board would get so many complaints about the paparazzi they’d insist we vacate the building. I was thinking of settling down in some rural spot in South Carolina, but it looks like that’s where the winning ticket was sold. After getting such a big break by avoiding the jackpot this week, I’d hate to press my luck where people actually win this thing.
Why a $5 bottle of water is worth it, the new biggest lie in business, and a fail-safe trick for turning your book into a best seller, among other tidbits for the week ahead…
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.