Where is the Beauty?

There is a quote from one of my favorite authors that illustrates my point nicely:

“Nothing is more important that that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Live it.

Keats wrote:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, Endymion

Just those first five lines (there are many more) are enough for me, ending with ‘quiet breathing.’  Slow down.  Slow.  Down.  Are you fast-paced enough to survive our modern crazy-ass rate of living?  Can you compete? are you tough enough, strong enough, ambitious enough, dedicated enough, persistent enough, merciless enough, to survive?

Darwin described a survival-of-the-fittest theory of evolution.  Since then, scientists have extensively modified his fundamental finding.  It isn’t all about competition and the race to the top.

Why are tribal bands of primates the top competitor in the race to conquer the world?  Why are there 6+ billion hairless monkeys running the Earth’s show?  Is it a sociopathic devil-take-the-hindmost race to the top that’s made us the top competitor, or something else?

My contention is that it’s beauty.  Which, in my mind, is a function of a group of people who have a higher goal.  Who don’t just live to live, but live to aspire to something greater than themselves.

But beauty, like fun, is in the eye of the beholder.  My beauty is no more your beauty than my fun is your fun.  And I’m wary of relativistic measures.  I know murder in cold blood is bad, and no matter what cultural or scientific or whatever justifications you may have for it, I think it’s bad.

But beauty and fun are necessarily relativistic.  Or, more accurately, are humanocentric.  My point is that you need to pay some fucking attention to them.  They’re evanescent, deliquescent, evanescent – they’re like a butterfly’s wing:  beautiful on inspection, delicate upon investigation.  Touch it, and it’s ruined.

Believe in beauty.  I’m no religionist, I espouse no path to redemption, but I believe that everyone should look at the world through the lens of beauty.  Perhaps burning every erg of hydrocarbons we pump up from the depths or scrape up from the earth is the proper way for our economy to prosper . . . but is it beautiful?

Is it beautiful?  Yes, this seems to be a bit flowery, or unrealistic, but . . . why not?  What do you want to leave to your children?  Ugly?

To me, fun is about beauty.  I want beautiful people around me (and that has little to do with their appearance) that are fun and making beauty.  Why not?  Why not make beauty?  What’s holding you back?

My auto mechanic makes beauty.  He is there for me, and shakes hands with me, and tells me the truth, and tries to be a part of my life in a way that I accept and honor.

That’s beauty.  Let’s be beautiful.

I love you,

R

Why Are You Crying?

Cried recently?  Why?  If you’re an American (or Westerner of most flavors), I doubt that you cry often, or for anything but a major life crisis – the loss of a loved one, the ending of a major relationship, or the end of a significant portion of your life:  your job, your health, your wealth.

My grandparents and parents lived hardscrabble lives:  I remember visiting my maternal grandparents house and going out to the chicken coop to gather eggs on a warm summer’s day, and stepping in a pile of chicken poop with bare feet.  That’s the sort of earthy, down to earth existence they lived, though my grandfather worked a good job with a major utility company that allowed him to own a nice home, and he had inherited a large plot of land that he had deeded to all of his progeny.  I lived in a neighborhood entirely populated with uncles, aunts, and cousins.  It was a good life.

But they had a truck garden (for moderns, this means a big garden that we worked in like dogs to make extra money from selling produce to grocery stores and roadside stands).  And that chicken coop.  And everyone worked hard, most in businesses they’d started themselves.  My dad was a contractor, and so was one of my uncles.  Another uncle was a mason.

And in those simpler times – and they were, no question – crying did happen only when something really tragic came into our lives.  And then it came out freely, was expected, was cherished and supported.

Things have changed.  Our lives are bewildering.  Overwhelming.  Filled with change, and uncertainty, and we’re uprooted from our native earth and planted somewhere strange.  Not bad, but strange.  As Kurt Vonnegut writes in one of my favorite quotes:

“Where’s my good old gang done gone?” I heard a sad man say. I whispered in that sad man’s ear, “Your gang’s done gone away.”

We still cry for the tragic, but I find myself – and I suspect that others of my generation, and of the generations who’ve come after me – cry for something that we cannot define, an absence and emptiness that is harder to encompass and remedy than an obvious intrusion such as a death or loss.

In the midst of a plenty that previous generations would envy, we lack something fundamental.  While buying anything we could imagine on Amazon and searching for anything we’d want to know on Google and sharing everything we’ve ever done on Facebook, there’s something that just isn’t there any more.

I believe that what’s missing is connection.  Connection to other people you know and trust, connection to a greater whole, connection to the natural world, connection to a day to day and a lifetime to lifetime continuity.  We live destinies that are significantly, and often radically, different from those of our parents and grandparents, and we fear that our sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, and the progeny and relatives of those unrelated to us but whom we know and love, will be lost amid an increasingly complex and dissociative social order.  We feel lost, and adrift.

I did.  And I do, though I’ve taken steps to walk back the alienation I’ve been subjected to through my own choices and the pressures of my career choice and the society I live in.  I moved back to my home state, I moved closer to my sons and to my extended family, I reestablished relationships long sundered by distance and busyness.

Because I spent a lot of time crying.  There is a sadness that is the deeper for the distance, a sorrow that increases with every tie that is broken or ignored, a tear that streams down your cheek despite every Facebook reacquaintance or social media connection.  And, so often, there is no one to hold you and let your tears soak into their shoulder as you weep.

Walk it back.  I like that phrase, the steady flow of it, the slowness of walking, the sense of turning away from a path that has led to sorrow.  Walk back your aspirations, turn back towards a life that includes your old friends and is together with family and that feels as if there’s a greater good and that there’s a better place you can only reach in community.

I will briefly describe such a place.  I recently got a job in a lab (my life’s been largely spent in one) that was already a good place, a community, with people who stopped to help one another, who sincerely wanted each other to succeed, who aspired to greater things but weren’t too busy with their ambitions to patiently explain to someone lower on their track how to do what they’d need to do to follow on.  And I’ve worked hard, though it may not appear to be hard work, to keep that spirit alive and to make that small community thrive.  And it’s been rewarding – it’s been fun – to be a part of it, and see every day how talented people can work together and create something new and bigger than themselves without fuss and fighting and a fight for credit.  How they can selflessly help one another.

But let’s not over-emphasize selflessness.  It isn’t.  It’s self-satisfying.  When I help one of my protégés, I get a charge.  I passed something on, and they valued it.  My life-long struggle to kick some ass passed on some kicked ass.

And that is as it should be.  Get your ass out there and kick some ass.  And find some good people who will criticize you, and bitch at you, and support you, and annoy you, and laugh with you, and play with you, and sit around a darkened room and drink beers with you, and laugh some more.  And, if you’re lucky, they’ll cry with you.  But you won’t be alone, and you won’t be crying because you’re alone.

I love you,

R

Fun at Work is About Your Boss

Who’s Your Boss?

I’m a scientist.  You know, the guy who was off in his own little world when you knew him in high school, doodling in his notebook while not listening to the teacher, finishing his science experiment in ten minutes and then working on his other homework while you suffered through your own only to get a C in the course while I got an A.  The scientist guy who wasn’t that good with people (to say the least) but was as self-contained as a hog on ice when it came to fussy, complicated, intellectual tasks.

Okay, I’m not quite that guy.  I am good with people, though I do like sitting by myself at the bench and doing repetitive, fussy, intellectually difficult tasks.

But now you’re working in a high-tech industry – and what business isn’t high tech now, from a factory making socks to Google?  And who’s your boss?  Me.  Or someone even more like the stereotype than me.

Boss Management 101

You took courses in college, or high school, that you sat through and doodled in your notebook during and wondered what the heck this shite could possibly do for your future.  Advanced algebra?  Shakespeare?  What hey, are you going to integrate areas under curves or recite sonnets in your future career?  Answer:  sometimes you will, and maybe something off the beaten path will be valuable.  But,

You missed the Big Course.  The one your college didn’t offer.  That, as far as I know, no college offers.  Boss Management 101.

Because your boss, your manager, is more important to your job success and satisfaction than any other factor.  Perhaps you got a job cleaning human shit out of reeking, rat-infested sewer pipes, and your boss’ deep concern for your welfare, or entire lack of caring, made no difference to your job satisfaction.  But in any other job your satisfaction with your boss is essentially equal to your own satisfaction with your job.

Doubt it?  Read First, Break All the Rules, a nice piece by authors from the Gallup organization who ran a massive poll of workers (about 1,000,000) and managers (about 100,000) in order to understand what factors make businesses work from the perspective of their employees and managers.  Their take away message:  good managers = success, bad managers = failure.  And success = happy employees, and failure = employees who leave quickly, or who stay and are unhappy and not terribly productive.

So, how do you manage your boss?  First, pick a good one.  Do your homework.  Find out who he or she is, and put your ear to the ground.  During your interview, assess your prospective boss.  Does he seem to care about his employee’s careers?  Because that’s what a manager’s job is:  to develop his employee’s careers.  To build teams that consist of people who feel that their jobs are more than just pieces put together to complete a jigsaw puzzle, but are instead pursuing dynamic, rewarding, creative, and, dare I say it, fun ways for them to make a living and spend the better part of their lives.  And also being pieces that fit into a nuanced, productive jigsaw puzzle.

Second, live with him.  Become a friend, a confidant, a partner.  If you can’t, I suggest that you should move on.  Because, if you don’t know your boss in a fairly intimate way, you don’t know your boss.  I’ve lived that story, assumed that divergent paths just meant divergent interests but still meant convergent paths, and boy!, was I sorely disappointed.  I didn’t know my boss, and I paid the price.

And when you’ve picked a good one, don’t let off the gas pedal.  I’ve had long, successful (and failed) relationships, and it takes constant attention to succeed.  We’d like to think that we can sail forward into the future, the more relaxed and carefree the better, but I beg to differ.  You don’t make a fine sculpture, a great cheese soufflé, or a long-term relationship by sailing and relaxing and being carefree.  Or rather, you do – but it’s in combination with attention to details, awareness of issues and a willingness to deal with them, and some craftiness.

Which is where the great boss managers differ from the merely acceptable.  Be crafty.  Think of yourself as a great martial artist facing their nemesis.  Your subtlety, your fakes and retreats and sudden, unexpected attacks are the key to your ability to win.

Same thing with boss management.  My boss worries about time on the job, sees people coming in comfortably late and leaving comfortably early as an existential issue for his own career.  I see the people, and their real productivity, and I take proactive steps to assuage his anxieties.  Because my workplace is productive, and, more importantly, is fun, and supportive, and collaborative.

And there is the challenge for the middle manager.  There is a balance between hours spent working, and productivity, and the attractiveness of your workplace to high performing people, and fun.  My emphasis is on fun (of course), because I have personally experienced the extremes of both states.  I’ve been in workplaces that were just no fun, and I now work in a lab that’s fun in a very relaxing, forward-looking, collaborative, cooperative, and pleasant way.  I know from verifiable scientific measures which one is more productive.

So boss management is more than simply getting that bad boy off your back.  It’s about helping her tune her organization to accomplish her, and your, and especially your subordinate’s, goals.  To make it all work without directly involving your boss, at least for almost all decisions.  There is an old and pithy saying that goes something like “never involve your boss in a decision he doesn’t need to know about,” that I recommend to you.

Don’t conceal anything.  Don’t play fast and loose.  But do accept the responsibility for the decisions that you could pass up to your boss, but, if you’d just stepped up, could be handled at your level.  Have your subordinate’s backs, protect them from the political flack, and that includes your boss’ moodiness and anxieties.  You deal with them.  You be the one who backs your people and helps them develop.   You look out for the fun, and make sure it increases.

I love you.  Stay the course, and

Have fun!

R

 

The Flow of Risk Management’s Black Swans

Safety Boxes

We’ve all experienced catastrophic endpoints. If you were in New York on 9/11, if you’ve ever had a relative you’ve hunted deer, drank whisky, and traded bad jokes with who suddenly and unexpectedly committed suicide (I did), if you’ve ever even gotten into a fender-bender on the way to work (we all have), you’ve been there. You’ve experienced a discontinuity.

My favorite anecdote from Nassim Talib’s The Black Swan was in the form of a graph of a domesticated turkey’s life. Fed, watered, and comfortably housed every day, that turkey’s confidence in his future got greater and greater, and reached it’s maximum in the week before Thanksgiving. And then he was prepped (to use a mild term) for someone’s holiday dinner.

The point of Talib’s graph was to point out the inadequacy of extrapolating from a steady and seemingly predictable past into the future. And to point out the power of the discontinuity, the point in time where the present deviates dramatically from the past. For risk managers, this graph holds a fundamental lesson in what’s important in staving off disaster, but it falls short of providing a prescription for success. Indeed, one of Talib’s points is that trying to predict this sort of event is fruitless. The best you can do is protect yourself as much as possible from them.

Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi’s seminal work, Flow, gives us clues to what a solution may look like. He studied flow states, originally defined by his studies of surgeons, mountain climbers, chess players, and dancers. He was looking for the basis of the intense states of concentration that allow these people to lose their self-consciousness and perform at a very primal level. His work is worth a read by anyone who cares about enjoying their work, but the pertinent part for this discussion is boxes. I call them safety boxes.

Safety boxes?

Csiksentmihalyi defined a number of parameters that must be satisfied in order for flow to occur. He used a box metaphor, since borders were critical to flow. The goal of the endeavor must be well defined, as well as the path to the goal, and both must be perceived to be within immediate reach. And the person seeking flow must feel safe.

Safety in a box. That’s the intersection between flow and black swans.

Safety in a box means that the consequences of a risk are available as immediate feedback (another critical factor in flow), and the adverse outcomes lie within defined borders. Safety boxes are nested like Chinese puzzle boxes or Russian Matryoshka dolls, each with a slightly greater potential for adverse consequences.

This discussion flows from my previous post about safety being paramount for successful management, but it extends into a more important concept for both your professional and personal life.  Limiting exposure.

What does this mean?  Is it biz-speak for something that could be better expressed more simply?  Perhaps yes.  What it means is that you don’t want to rail and piss off your anger at a subordinate when the upside is a limited prospect of getting her to work harder while the downside is losing your job for being a harasser.  It’s about making a sincere effort to explore the potential barriers and pitfalls of committing to an approach when other options exist that may have less risk, or more potential for gain.

It’s about keeping your legs inside the bus when it’s hurtling down the road past trucks hauling poorly tied-down lumber.  Simply, it’s about being conservative about actions you may take that open you to big, big losses.  Tragic consequences.

And, conversely, it’s about opening your life to opportunities that are unlikely but have the potential to transcend every other aspect of your life.  Who cares about your 401k when you’ve just won the $230 million dollar MegaMillions prize?  Buy a MegaMillions ticket whenever the jackpot reaches the $100 million point – you’ll never win, but if you do all your other investments become moot.  Open yourself to the big wins.

And close off the big losses.  Don’t rob liquor stores, even if you have a great system for knocking them off and reaping thousands with little effort.  The downside is too compelling.  You may end up in prison for a long, long time.  You may end up murdering someone, with real life consequences along with a karmic debt that I’m frankly loathe to pay.

Stay in the middle of the road, with occasional positive forays.

Feel the power of your beauty.  You are beautiful.  Play on it, play with it, but don’t ever get ugly.

I love you,

R

Everything you need to know to make your own workplace fun – Part I: The Most Important Thing

Here are all the secrets I’ve gathered up over the years that you can apply to your own workplace.  I care about fun, and, by extension, about your fun.  Let me help.

First, foremost, and most importantly – safety.  A safe space.  You must have a safe space in order to have fun.

I worked for many years for a man whom I believed had my back.  He didn’t.  When the chips were in the pot, he chose to back his own play at my expense.  He didn’t have my back.

Once I was unemployed, due in large part to my former boss’s lack of confidence in my work, I worked through the exercises in a book I can wholeheartedly recommend:  What Color is Your Parachute?  I needed a job, and this book truly helps you find one.  The section I was working through was directed towards finding the right people to work with.  It made you list the things you really wanted to have in your coworkers, and then prioritize that list so you understood what was really important.  I did this exercise with my son, who is also looking for better employment.

When I finished, read through my list, and gave it some thought, I realized that the first four –the most important – items on my list could be translated as, “I have your back.”  I admit that I was traumatized, but there are other, independent researches supporting my tender feelings. In Csikszentmihályi’s formative work on flow (the psychology of optimal experience), one of the four basic requirements for the sort of deep involvement with your own work (he studied chess players, surgeons, dancers, and mountain climbers) is a safe space.  He discovered that you can’t truly integrate with your work unless you feel safe.

You know this already, at least if you’ve ever worked in crappy conditions for a boss who didn’t understand this concept.  He, or she, most likely subscribed to the dominance theory of management, where the most important thing is to keep your worker bees under control and compliant. They believe in a state where management equals keeping track of your workers performance and holding them to their promises, rather than giving underlings authority to exert their own judgement.  These managers believe that exerting their own judgement into every aspect of the organization is important for keeping their people on track.

How crippling.  How pathetic.  How micromanagerial.  Control, control, control.  Let go of your futile grip on the lives of your subordinates.  They want to please you.  They live for the moment that you give them a compliment.  Is it truly that hard for you to stop being the bitch and start being the enabler?  Why not help instead of criticize?

I admit that I was both a villain and a victim of the system.  I managed badly.  I suffered in my career from it.  I criticized and failed to compliment.  I failed.

Why not let the Dark Side go, and give a chance to the Light Side?  Feel the Force, Luke!  Walk out into your cubicle cluster and give a sincere compliment to everyone who works for you.  Or everyone who works with you.  Let them know that you have a real human connection with them, that you actually give a shit.  Be human, and be vulnerable, and be real.

Make them feel safe.  MAKE THEM FEEL SAFE!

You may have tried punishment management, based on fear and fear of loss.  How has it worked for you?  How have you felt when it was used on you?  Are you simply echoing the bad management you’ve received rather than rejecting the abuse and trying for something better?

Why not try the management of safety, of caring, of love and appreciation and respect?

I love you,

Richard

Fun after the Edge has Crumbled

14 03-23 No Fun Man

The Cliff’s Edge

Think back to a time you stood at the edge of a cliff, whether real or metaphorical. A moment when your life was behind you, and the only thing in front was a lot of very thin air. And a high, cold wind that tugged at you unexpectedly, leaving you dancing and waving your arms. Scary, yes?

But was it fun? Did you feel as if a heavy backpack had fallen away so you stood straighter? Did the prospect of diving off – not falling, but diving – sweep away the cobwebs and leave you trembling with expectation? Didn’t the fatal edge hold a strange attraction? Wasn’t it fun to be at risk, to imagine putting it all at risk?  Isn’t this why the Grand Canyon gets so many visitors?

The Cookie’s Crumbles

I was over the edge before I knew there was a cliff. My nearly 30-year career as an academic researcher, culminating in a tenure-track faculty position, ended in seconds in a brief-but-pointed meeting with my estranged boss. No chance of appeal (though I tried), no helpful rope thrown to swing me down to a lower ledge. I was already falling by the time I realized there was an edge.

It was a long way down, but a short fall. Strangely, it was also fun. One advantage of academic positions is that they can’t simply show you the door. I had a full year to wrap up my affairs, and being one of the walking dead was very liberating. I had one of my favorite meetings of all time with my estranged boss, full of humor and completely positive and upbeat. The poor man had no idea what hit him. I know he expected me to rant and rave, but instead I could reflect on all the ways we had done good things together (we’d worked together for almost 20 years). I walked out whistling. The looks on his face had been priceless.

I certainly couldn’t feel the backpack filled with stones I’d been carrying around. I was in free fall. I hit hard when the last day came rolling around, but walking out the door of a place where so much good had developed, so many mistakes made, so much stress suffered, and so many dreams realized (and shattered) really felt like flying. I left the backpack on the threshold and almost drifted away on the breeze.

Fun at the Bottom

Putting my life together afterwards has been fun – as well as stressful, disappointing, depressing, and exhilarating. I’ve made a serious study, much more serious than any of my academic researches, on why my work hadn’t been much fun, and what it would take to keep it fun. Fun as in fun work, not a staff party at work.

Much of what I’ve discovered – some from the literature (I especially recommend Csikezentmihalyi’s Flow and Fried & Hansson’s Rework for the beginning student of fun), some from observation, and the rest from my own research and practice – highlights preparation. Contrary to what we might expect from parties, vacations, and screwing around, fun work requires careful preparation and is rarely spontaneous. Fun work comes out of expertise, inspired management, carefully designed systems, and lovingly nurtured teams. It is also often spontaneous and creative and playful, but these qualities don’t arise from the dust.

It took a fall to shake me out of my difficult and mostly unfun career and allow me to focus on what really matters in my work. I can’t say I’d recommend it as a method for reorganizing your life, if only because of the economic uncertainty, but I wouldn’t go back to my old life. Better to be at the bottom with a clear vision of your goals than be lost at the top. Cliffs are everywhere, and often the edges crumble further back than you’d expect.

Walk with care – or run forward full tilt. Either way, I offer you these conclusions from my own descent:  Fun work is your best work. Fun is the best measure of your work. And fun is what makes success feel like success. So, whether warily or carefully . . . make it fun.

Fun with Money. Money. Money.

You Can’t Take It With You – But Can You Give It Away?

Money.  Wealth, and its distribution.  It’s the root of the world’s problems, it’s what the fighting’s all about.  If you don’t think so, listen to Pink Floyd’s Money – or, better yet, watch the capuchin monkeys and the grapes and cucumbers.

Really.  Watch the monkeys.  It’s perhaps the most important (and amusing) video ever filmed.

I’m absolutely fascinated by giving and receiving, especially when the exchange involves money. I’ve been paying focused attention to all of the transactions I am party to, or witness, particularly people’s emotional states.  For example, I recently asked a friend for some money. He’s quite well to do – his admitted net worth is in the range of 100x as great as mine, even including my retirement plans – and I wasn’t asking for much, but the transfer of actual money was fraught with intense emotions.  Shame and disgust, anger and sadness, guilt and remorse. Perhaps this isn’t a big surprise to anyone, but, at least in the Western world, we don’t spend much time questioning these feelings.

Should I feel guilty for being in a place that required me to ask for money? Ashamed? Both my friend and I have PhDs in biochemistry, both of us worked like dogs to succeed, and he succeeded vastly more than I did. And I ran into a bad patch. Does my lack of success despite similar efforts make me worthy of disgust, and should I feel shame?

Whether I should or not, I felt a real sense of shame, a visceral guilt. And I know I went down several notches in my friend’s esteem. I’ll pay him back in less than a month, and tack on 5% (better return on investment than anything legal I’m aware of) – but the feelings won’t just evaporate.

I always give beggars a buck. I know many are shiftless, or professionals, but I respect what they do. You don’t? Here’s a little test:  go out on the street and stop a stranger and ask him for money. Try it. Most people would rather piss their pants in public than ask a stranger for cash. Perhaps this will make you think the next time you walk past a beggar with your nose in the air.

I’m hoping to have time to develop another business, one based on exploring this fundamental activity and how we can manipulate it for good. My concept is a sort of non-charity charitable organization, or a non-charitable charity – essentially, an organization that collects money and gives it away randomly. Not to the poor, not based on need, just to anyone we run across. To rich old ladies driving Cadillacs, harried middle-class moms toting kids, teenagers wandering the mall, grumpy convenience store clerks (and happy ones too). I see it as a research project, a way to understand why some people will gratefully accept, some will reject a no-strings gift no matter their need, and everything in between. I want to understand why, especially when money is involved, that it’s so difficult for most of us to easily give and receive. And why receiving is so difficult.

I think I know the answers before I will get the data to confirm or deny them.  Money is a measure of your life, the currency we use to define our productivity.  We wield it like a bludgeon in our capitalist society to define our relative worth, looking down on those who fall between the cracks and revering those who either excel in playing the capitalist system for their own gain or who inherited great wealth from their ancestors.

What.  A.  Crock.  Of.  Shit.  Some of the best people I’ve ever known have no sense of how to make money off their creativity, nor any desire to learn it for their own benefit.  They fumble through a world that forces them to eat ramen noodles for sustenance and get no retirement benefits nor any health, dental, vision, legal, or any other employment-based extras that many of us take for granted.  They can’t play the capitalist game, yet most of them would be better dinner-party company than those who can.

I’m not a communist, nor a socialist, nor an any old -ist.  I just know my social equals, and those who can bang out a decent black-smithed item, paint a charming picture with oil paints, sing a decent song that they’ve created themselves, or just sit down with me and kill a bottle of fine red wine while making exciting conversation simply blow away people who see money as a way to make more money.  Because they always see their money not as a way to buy a bottle of fine cognac, but as a potential investment that will get them two bottles of fine cognac if they just invest it.  Yet they never seem to have two bottles of fine cognac, nor would they share it with you if they did.

So – give it the fuck away.  Recent studies of people who won big money in our lotteries has shown that those who are happy (vs. those who piss all that money away, and often end up perversely in debt), are those who give most of their money away.

Let’s say you’re rich.  You have millions and bazillions of dollars.  Let’s say that our human population is reduced to 100 people, and you are the rich guy.  You own 99.999% of the village that is humanity.

Are you happy?  Will you stay happy when everyone around you is destitute compared to you?

Give it away.  Don’t do it to people you know.  Don’t keep control.  Let.  It.  Go.

I love you,

R

 

Listen

Listen

Most of us . . . almost all of us . . . live close to nature. We may live in places that have intruded on nature, pushed most of it away. But it’s still there, unless you live in central Manhattan. In fact, it’s intruded on us as we’ve intruded on it.

If you don’t live close enough, go there. If you are close enough – and I am, living in suburban Ohio, even though you might not say so if you saw my house – go outside.  Turn off your lights. Sit comfortably. Shut up. And listen.

Pretend you’re a conductor listening to his orchestra while he conducts. Picking out every voice, thinking, adjusting, gesturing for what he wants to hear. But don’t be the conductor, be the listener. Hear everything.

The crickets cricking. Cars passing, semis whooshing on a nearby highway, the snarl of motorcycles racing idiotically a mile away. The glurp glurp glurp of frogs. Your world. Listen.

We think with our eyes, and blind our ears. Our judgements are visual, our filters are audio. We can hold up a conversation in a noisy bar, but a flash of motion draws our eyes. Use that. Listen.

And smell. Listening helps us bypass the dominance of our eyes, smelling goes direct to our old brain. Light a fire, if you can. Play with it, and get your clothes all stinky with woodsmoke. Smell.

Listen. And smell. Taste, and touch. Close your eyes, and settle down into yourself.

Listen.

 

What is Fun? and Why it’s Fun-damental

Why are we so passionate about keeping fun out of work?

What do you think of when you think of fun?  Do you think of deep, philosophical meaning?  Or frivolous, meaningless entertainment?

My parents grew up in tough times.  My mom lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s under primitive conditions, where getting enough to eat was a real issue.  Her family worked hard to get food from dirt, from stinky, messy chickens, from hard work, dawn to dusk – enjoying only the entertainment they could make for themselves.

My dad grew up in only slightly better circumstances.  His dad worked as a handyman for a boy’s school in Northern Michigan, and this connection allowed my dad to attend that school and move up.  But he didn’t attend college, and worked, like his brothers, in the hard work of construction.  It wasn’t easy.

My parents taught me a lot about fun.  They didn’t have it easy, and the way they grew up changed them in fundamental ways.  They always worked hard, even when they didn’t really need to, and didn’t have much respect for slackers.  But they had fun.  And respected fun.

They built their lives around improving their lot, and providing better opportunities for their kids (me and my two brothers).  They helped their neighbors (my aunts and uncles), and worked hard to keep up the neighborhood.  But there was always time for a party, and they lived for the gatherings of relatives and friends, even as they worked like dogs to make sure those gatherings were filled with food and fun, were held in a scrupulously clean home, and ended well for everyone that attended.

They lived for fun.

And despite growing up in difficult times, they had fun living. And working. They didn’t talk about fun work, or (I believe) even think about their work as fun. But I worked with my Mom and Dad, and I know they cared deeply about fun, and not just when the chores were done.

The Western world, and especially the United States with its Puritanical roots, has a deep mistrust of fun. There’s a big wall between serious and fun. Serious is important, and fun is silly. It’s not uncommon for Americans to put words like foolishcarefreesilly, and pointless in sentences together with fun – and rare to associate fun with seriousimportantessential, and fundamental.

And yet there’s a curiously intense, even frantic, feeling to our fun. Those rare vacations, the few hours on the weekend or after work when we aren’t busy with chores, or homework, or work we took home, have all the light-hearted delicacy of a giant, smoke-belching chainsaw. When we do fun, we do it. All balls to the wall, full-tilt boogie.

We live for fun, but we squeeze it into such a small space that the pressure is incredible. You’ve heard your colleagues (or your wife, or yourself) complain that it took them almost their entire vacation to decompress enough to relax. That’s one symptom of the way we’ve pushed fun out of our ‘regular’ lives and into a walled, gated reservation.

Corporations are one of the culprits. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. They’ve turned them into procedures entombed in three-ring binders, put them in service to the quarterly report, shareholder value, and the bottom line. We’re interchangeable cogs in a faceless machine, and the only stories left over are the bad ones. The server crash that killed everyone’s email, the dork who spilled his coffee into the copy machine. Fun is banished – because it can’t be turned into a procedure.

This leftover of the assembly-line era is changing – think of Google with it’s gaily painted ‘offices,’ the free massages and foosball tables and gourmet lunches. We’re groping back to fun work, but mostly it’s fun as a coat of paint. The office is ‘fun,’ but the work is the same old drudgery. Adding a foosball table doesn’t free you from soulless rote work, or turn a bad boss into less of a jerk.

Let’s reclaim fun. Fun work. Work that’s fun because fun work is our best work. Let’s measure our work by fun because fun captures the whole, not the part. And because fun is what makes our success feel like success.

But what is fun?

Short answer:  I don’t know.  However, we as a race of thinking beings don’t know what anything really is.  We have descriptions of behavior, not knowledge of what is.  We don’t know what space is, or what an electron is, or what time is. We can only describe. Define.

My definition of fun is simple:  Fun is what’s happening when you know you’re having fun.

That puts fun on an entirely different plane from most feel-good measures.  Happiness, satisfaction, wellness – they’re all states of being.  Fun happens.  It’s an action, a verb, though we don’t typically use it as one.  You don’t be fun, you have fun.  Okay, you can be fun too, but that really means that fun happens around you.  A fun person has fun.  A happy person is happy.

I believe that fun is also a synonym for creativity.  Fun is inherently creative, a creative act, even if the creation is ‘just’ a great conversation, or an exciting party.  Like fun, creativity is really a verb, an action.  Yes, we say someone is creative, but that really means that person creates.  I believe that fun is functional creativity – creativity that’s working – and the better it works, the more fun it is.

Defining fun as equal to creativity excludes a lot of what most people would call fun. Specifically, non-participatory entertainment. Watching a sporting event, or a concert, or your favorite TV show. I think that’s right, because the absence of creativity makes these activities enjoyable rather than fun. If they’re truly fun, there is creativity involved, even if it’s ‘just’ having far-ranging conversations about your favorite team, or doing the wave.

There are people who have fun – what I call fun – in ways that aren’t typically creative. I see through my filter, and I live to create. To create new things, objects or ideas or processes that never existed before. You may have a different filter, and have fun that doesn’t create anything new.

A better definition of fun may be:  Fun is what’s happening when you’re doing what you do best. You may have fun innovating, while your colleague has fun using your innovation to make her spreadsheet balance perfectly. I call this putting your personal stamp on your work.

Through my filter, that means making something new. For you it may be about being in control, or doing your work with style. Either way, it’s essential for fun. The corporate world may want you to become an interchangeable cog in a faceless machine, but if you get stamped out rather than doing the stamping, you won’t be having fun.

You may think you’re not the ‘creative type,’ but I still believe that fun = creativity. You may have to look beneath the surface to see it. At the lowest level, you’re different than your co-workers, and so you must be creative just to adapt your working style to a common workplace. And when you’re doing what you do best and feel appreciated for doing it, you have fun – and when you don’t, it’s not.

And that’s why fun is fundamental

Whether we think we’re creative or not, we must create to survive.  Perhaps there are people who do nothing their whole lives but consume without creation.  If so, I doubt they’re having fun.  For the vast majority of humanity, creation is as essential as breathing, even if it’s rote and by-the-numbers.  Hunting howler monkeys in the Amazon rain forest with blowguns, or being a clerk at a rural gas station – both (can) create.

Fun is the best part of that creative spectrum.  Creation of something new, or novel, creation of something that has your special stamp on it.  Fun is what puts your mark on the world, for good or bad, for posterity or only until the tide comes in and washes it away.

That’s the paradox, and power, of fun.  Fun isn’t ambition, or a legacy, or a conquest.  It’s doing what you do best for its own sake – not for advantage, or posterity.  It’s the spark of invention, the feeling that the Universe would be different, and poorer, if you hadn’t had your fun.

Please. Please. Go have fun. Insist on it. Hold yourself to it. Ask yourself every time you aren’t having fun, “Why not?” It’s a merciless metric, a tough taskmaster, but you’ll have some great stories when you do. How you made paying your bills fun. How you created a fun way to clean the toilets (I did). How fun drew out the best of you and helped you enjoy it – even when you didn’t think you could.

Have fun!

 

Why a Fun Survey is the Best Survey

Fun Surveys are (at least) 100 times better

Because people want to have fun – so they want to take your survey

When did you last take a survey willingly? I shop on Amazon, and after each purchase I get a pop-up and a follow-up email asking for my opinion. I never take their surveys.

Why?  Because those surveys suck. Most people would rather do dull and tedious work than take a typical survey. Because they’re boring.

Funshop makes fun surveys. Fun both ways. They measure fun, and they’re fun to take. That makes them (at least) 100 times better. Why?

Boring surveys ignore your core customers

Here’s a familiar graph – a bell curve. It plots how much fun your customers had (the bottom, or x-axis) versus the number of customers (the side, or y-axis). The shape of the curve is like a bell. Many things in life, when plotted this way, would have the same bell-like distribution:  height of men (or women, or boys), attractiveness of faces, how long your commute takes, &etc.

Typical Boring Survey Bell Curve
How a typical (boring) survey covers the customer bell curve.

The arrows pointing down show the sampling you’d get from a typical (boring) survey. The red arrows are responses from customers who took your survey because they were really unhappy with something. They needed to tell you how bad their experience was.

The green arrows are responses from customers who loved their experience, and wanted to share that with you. And the gray arrows are responses from people who just love to take surveys, no matter how boring.

The gray part of the bell curve in the middle are your core customers. Most of them got what they expected (the middle of the bell curve), and quite a few had a significantly better or worse experience. Boring surveys miss these customers, because they only get responses from the tiny fraction who love taking surveys.

Your total response from a typical survey is, at maximum, 15%. You’ll only hear from the 5% at the extremes, and the 5% who love taking surveys. And you won’t even hear from all of them. You’ll hear from about 10% of them.  That means 10% x 15% = 1.5%.

And the responses will be very, very biased. Most responses will be either love or hate. You’ll never be able to cut the bad end off the bell curve – and why waste all your efforts on the 5% of customers who hated your business? Why not focus on your core?

Why a fun survey covers the whole bell curve

Now check out the next graph:

Fun Surveys Cover the Whole Bell Curve
Fun surveys sample your entire customer base because they’re fun to take

We broke the bell curve into more sections, each showing a different customer experience. The purple arrows are the responses you can expect from a fun survey. They cover the whole bell curve. You’ll hear from a representative sample of your customers, not just the extremes.

Why? Because people love to have fun. They’ll take a fun survey willingly. And even if the survey isn’t much fun for them – we know everyone has fun in different ways – they’ll take it because they hope for fun.  And they’ll still appreciate the effort you made.

Fun surveys are great marketing – they leave a great last impression

Most surveys are offered to customers after they’ve had their experience. It’s their last impression of your business.

A large body of psychological research has explored how we remember experiences.  (I suggest reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for it’s clear summaries of this research) Boiled down to the basics, we remember three things:  1) the initial condition (our first impression), 2) the peak experience (the best or worst part, whichever is greater), and 3) the final condition (our last impression). Most of the experience is not part of our memory.

In one experiment, researchers had subjects put their hands in painfully cold water. One group had to suffer for 60 seconds, and the other group suffered for 90 seconds. For the 90-second sufferers, researchers added just enough warm water to make participants feel slightly less pain for the last 30 seconds. The last 30 seconds were still painful – just a tiny bit less painful.

The researchers had the subjects do both the 60- and 90-second tests, and asked subjects to rate the two experiences.

The vast majority preferred the 90-second treatment. Even though it was 50% longer, and painful all the way through, the slightly better experience at the end was enough to make their memory of it more attractive (or less repulsive).

Now think of that survey. Do you want your customer’s last impression to be a boring survey? Or paying their bill and then being invited to take a boring survey online?

Fun surveys market your business in two important ways: they invoke fun, and they are fun.

First, our fun surveys ask your customer to remember the most fun part of their experience. Fun becomes the last thing they remember about you. They may still remember things that are less pleasant, but at least that all-important last impression is of fun.

Second, even if your customer’s best experience with your business wasn’t that great, a fun survey means that the last thing they did was fun. Fun is the best last impression you can make. And they’ll remember it.

Fun surveys lead to opportunities, not problems

Fun surveys measure fun. Unlike positive states of being such as happiness, satisfaction, comfort, and contentment, fun is an action. Sometimes ‘fun’ is used to describe a state – she’s a fun person, or this restaurant is fun – but what we really mean is that fun happens when she is around, or when we go to that restaurant.  Fun is a verb.

That’s why measuring fun is different, and more effective. A fun survey defines what your customers are doing that brings them back. And that’s the memory you want to create. We remember having fun, not being happy, or contented. Try it. Remember a time when you were happy – we’ll bet that what you picture in your mind is having fun, and that fun was what made you happy.

Focusing on creating fun guides you to new creative opportunities. Rather than stooping to the bottom to deal with the problems, fun is about starting at the top and climbing higher. People come back to your business because of what you do best – not what you fail to do worst.

And it’s surprising how many businesses don’t know what they do best. Is it the food? or the service? The price? or the quality? Or is it something you’d never thought of?

The motto of a business I once worked for is, “Everything Matters.” The business is a children’s hospital, so I’m sure that motto is reassuring to worried parents of sick children. But does everything matter? Is the decor critical? The quality of the cafeteria food? Does trying to solve every problem lift the whole enterprise higher, or does it suck all the oxygen out of moving forward and innovation?

Fun matters, because fun is what you’re doing right. Fun guides you to why people love you, and invites you to do more of it. Be a problem solver, and all you’ll do is deal with problems. Have fun, and you will create.

Of course, fun surveys also find out where it’s no fun. In fact, measuring fun is an incredibly potent method for finding serious problems, even problems no one is willing to talk about. If you ask what’s the most fun, and no one points in a particular direction, in that direction lies a problem. People have fun in many different ways, so if none of them think something is fun, it’s no fun. If fun work is your best work, what is work that’s no fun? Measuring fun leads you forward, and can also tell you what’s holding you back.

Just caring about fun is huge

People really care about fun. What do you spend your money on after you’ve paid the bills? We believe your business must care about fun.

Just showing you care about your customer’s (or employee’s) fun is huge. It shows you care about one of the most desirable things in life. If you say it, and mean it, and show that you’re trying, it will make a difference. A tangible, bottom-line difference.

Try it. Tell your customers that you care about their fun, and do something you think will make your business more fun for them. Even if it doesn’t work, your profit (or however else you measure your success) will be greater. Just showing that you care about fun will increase your productivity.

> 100 times better

Fun surveys get more responses. The responses are less biased.

Fun surveys are great marketing. They focus your customers on the best part of their experience, and leave one as a last impression.

Fun surveys identify opportunities, the part of your business that brings in the customers. Fun surveys guide you in building up, not drilling down – though they tell you where to drill if you need to.

And fun surveys show you care about fun. Your customer cares, your employees do too – shouldn’t you?

Let’s be conservative. Our surveys get responses from more than 50% of people offered one. Most surveys get less than 5%, unless they’re mandatory or offer a direct reward. Let’s call that 10 times better. Our surveys are less biased, so call it 20 times better.

Most surveys have zero marketing value (or even a negative value). That means a fun survey is infinitely better. But let’s just say 10 times better.

We’re already at 20 x 10 = 200 times better.

Try one.  It’s fun.