Live in the layers

This morning I lazily opened up Dream Work, stumbled on the poem “Stanley Kunitz”, and a flood of memories came rushing in.

Years ago, on a very early morning–before dawn even, it seemed–my brother dropped me off on his way to the airport, and since he was short on time, he let me off where I’d make a short walk to my apartment in Lower Queen Anne by cutting through the Seattle Center and he can continue on out to the highway.

As I walked by an unassuming corner across from the Center House, I saw words etched into big pieces of polished stone, and that’s when I discovered the poem The Layers by Stanley Kunitz.

When I resumed my walk, these lines stayed on my mind,

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

Stanley is a pretty decent (read: crazy good) gardener, it turns out. In “Stanley Kunitz”, Mary Oliver wrote about discovering that “it isn’t magic”, and here she blasted her notion of him strolling about idly among the birds and the bees and the trees.

I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience–
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

Today, the image forming in my mind is a poet laboring away in his garden, “raking the trimming, stirring up those sheets of fire” patiently pulling weeds among the leaves and vines.

And speaking of gardening and my brother, this reminds me of a time when we saw Candide, laughing our asses off together and silently drove home together, me pondering on the last line of the play. Pangloss was philosophizing about sequences and possibilities of events in life, and Candide simply said, “We must all cultivate our own garden.”

Stanley Kunitz
by Mary Oliver

I used to imagine him
coming from the house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder–
it has happened every summer for years.

But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house–
I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience–
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn’t magic!
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate–
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
even when I do not see him,
I think of him there
raking the trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.

The Layers
By Stanley Kunitz
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

Of Mice and Men and MHC

This morning, this article caught my attention while mindlessly doing some reading (ha): Why Smart People Are Stupid.

While there are a few technically inaccurate—or rather sloppy—assertions (oh snap, girl’s talking trash!), I’ll gloss over them for now. The main point, I gathered, is in this paragraph:

“While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.”

This reminded me of a hilarious, and informative, discussion of Major Histocompatibility Complex and human pheromones from Dirty Mind:

“What is it that we are picking up from another person that forces our attention so strongly upon him or her? That can sexually arouse us after only a look or a word? Make us crave that person’s future company?

After attraction has been established, what is it that determines whether it will grow into love? Does that attraction have to be there immediately, or can it grow over time?

Here’s a case where animal models are not much help. Female rats don’t care if a male rat has a sense of humor or what it does for a living. It doesn’t matter to male rats how many baby daddies a female has previously entertained or whether she has a season pass to Penn State games.

I don’t even know how to begin to qualify what might count as hot on the rat ass scale, but I do know that a show of teeth in these critters usually precedes an attack. Courtship in rodents and human beings is not all that analogous.

For example, the prairie vole, the rodent mascot of love, becomes attracted to another vole after a lot of urine sniffing. The pheromones, small chemosensory compounds, in the urine give these animals enough information to make a connection and get to work getting busy. The same setup is not going to work with humans.”

The author goes on to talk about that famous Sweaty Shirt Study where they found that our sex sweat activates the area that regulates our emotion and social behavior (the right orbitofrontal cortex), and the area that controls our sexual behavior, that glorious, oh so glorious hypothalamus.

“This means our brain is doing a lot with the chemosensory information in the sweat of sexual arousal. Somehow we know that it belongs to another human without being explicitly told so.

Our brain also seems to understand that the scent has something to do with sex. These smells are managing to convey a lot of important information without our even being aware of it.”

There’s something simultaneously romantic and frightening, or at least unsettling, about this discovery. It’s ridiculously brilliant that things work this way, that there can only be so much rationalizing, justifying, and explaining that we can do in this dance. The rest is, like it or not, up to our nose. (Cue cheesy “the nose knows” exasperated exclamation.)

For those of us in the human race insisting that we are completely, a hundred-percently rational beings, making rational decisions based on facts and data and charts and graphs, this is potentially agitating, or at best befuddling. ZOMG WE ARE NOT ALWAYS IN CHARGE OF OUR OWN DECISHUN?

The olfactory system is so powerful that, even if you can’t physically smell something, a memory, or a well-crafted description can almost take you there, a la Tom Robbins in portraying September in Louisiana:

“The air–moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh–felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time.”

What I’m trying to say, really, is today—and many more days of my life, the rest of my life, really—I’m decidedly grateful for my olfaction. I’m grateful that I have no idea how it works, and it still, faithfully, tirelessly, carries on its work, leading me to the right food to eat, reminding me to do laundry and shower before I offend my neighbors, and, and this is important, helping me sniff out the right boy to snog with.

As them Mice would say:

The ocean breathes salty, won’t you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul.
And maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both grow old.
Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope so.

The Lean Relationship

My friend Brendan (hi Brendan) once half joked that he’d like to have a couple kids, “I think they’d make good side projects, you know?” (maybe he wasn’t joking at all, it’s hard to tell with that Aussie deadpan accent). I laughed out loud, and played along, “Oh yeah, totally, I can see that. But first you need to find a willing and able cofounder. ‘Cause it’d be pretty hard doing those side projects solo.”

Then we stared into space, each chasing our own thoughts. I’m not sure what Brendan was thinking, but maybe he, like I, was thinking about the design specs for a cofounder, personas, scenarios, and storyboarding how the sign-up workflow would go.

(You think I’m joking.)

(Ok, maybe I’m joking. Except for the sign-up workflow.)

But lately, this idea has been sitting in my head, what if we ran our relationships like a lean startup a la Eric Ries? After all, those of us in this tiny corner of the world who are obsessed with making Good Things are perpetually seeking, and iterating, on ways to build a better company, a better product, a better user experience.

Why couldn’t we do that with finding a romantic partner, a co-founder, who’s essential to the product development process? I mean, you don’t even have to want to procreate. A great relationship could be the source of happiness, contentment, inspiration, crying shoulder, etc. It could be *the* Good Thing springpad from which you build other Good Things.

Also, and this is an important point (imho), startups fail, a lot, often. Same with relationships. Everywhere I look, it’s almost like people are getting fries with a side of divorce.

“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build–the thing customers want and will pay for–as quickly as possible. In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.”

In his book, Eric talks about the feedback loop process of driving a car, which happens so quickly that we don’t even register the fact that we’re constantly adjusting the steering wheel. He contrasted this with launching a rocket ship, which requires precise calibration from the get-go and leaves no room for error adjustment.

When I read about the steering wheel and the driver, I immediately thought about an exercise I did in my yoga training with Judith Hanson Lasater. You can do this too. Stand up, and close your eyes. You’ll notice that your body is constantly swaying, shifting back and forth and side to side. After having us observe and confirm this in our own bodies, Judith declared, “Standing is the constant adjustment of falling forward and backward.”

“Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.”

Can BML be applied to relationships, or is my analogy totally perverse and asinine?

True heroism

I’ve been mildly obsessed with this page for a few weeks. I keep it open among  20+ other pages, occasionally forget about it until I’m cycling through all the tabs, come across it, then I’d sit and stare at it for a few minutes, smiling.

It reminds me of a quote I heard once by Wendell Berry, an environmentalist and author, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding.”

"True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world." – David Foster Wallace in The Pale King

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” – David Foster Wallace in The Pale King

The Pale King quote is grounding, and quite humbling. What’s also neat, is the quasi-hidden navigation on the page. You mouse over the colored bars, and oh, look, more quotes with the same category tag! You mouse over the quote and get the posted date and other social media sharing options, which, at worst, are typically vomited on a page to accompany an article or image.

Does it work as well on other devices? Nope. It works ok, but not fantastic; it’s only optimized, and–to use a word my friend Brendan has been using lately to describe games and software–pleasurable on one medium.

But, does it matter? I would contend not. Not for what I use it for, and not for what I find it useful for. Sure, right now there are lots of healthy spirited discussion out there (and probably one nasty one) about responsive design, cross-channel design, build once run anywhere content, etc. etc. It makes good sense, yes. Yet, I find the discoverability and animation on this site so… what is a good word here, I think “delightful” would do it, yes, delightful, that I really don’t care that it doesn’t behave the same elsewhere.

So, sometimes, maybe, just maybe, getting one thing right for user satisfaction, in just one way, is sufficient?

Here, you play with it.

AIDS, Writing, Loss, and Geography of The Heart

I know nothing about AIDS.

I grew up in a time when AIDS, or SIDA as it’s known outside of North America, was just discovered, and since not much was known about it, a lot was speculated, and feared. A quick Wikipedia scan and I learned that “AIDS was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981.” The recognition of this disease is exactly as old as I am.

I don’t remember think I learned anything about AIDS in school, other than that you can’t get it if you don’t have sex with someone who’s HIV-positive. So I went on living in ignorance of how this virus affects my fellow human beings.

A few days ago, this segment on NPR caught my attention: Love Isn’t All You Need: 3 Relationship Building Reads (they might as well have called it, Nikki Chau Sucker Alert).

Of the three books recommended, Fenton Johnson’s book, Geography Of The Heart, a Memoir, seemed most like a weekend read. Plus, the author practices at the San Francisco Zen Center, and his lover (Larry) is a Francophile? Count me in.

As luck (or some version thereof) would have it, I’ve been sick all day today, shriveling with a bone-chilling cold and a burning sore throat, so it was good timing to be lying around with this book and finishing it.

Here are a few quotes from the book that spoke to me, emphasis is mine.

When Fenton told Larry that his greatest fear is that he will die and leave him infected and alone:

“One measure of love is the ability to speak aloud the unspeakable, secure in the knowledge of the bedrock on which you rest.

To speak with such frankness of the terrors of the heart–to talk so openly of the demons within, with no fear on either side of rejection–honesty of this completeness is the privilege of true lovers.” – Page 92

A student talking about learning to write at Larry’s funeral:

“He took us out to Telegraph Avenue and made us write about what we saw until we thought it was good enough to convince somebody who’d never been there what it looked like and what we thought of it.

It was the first time in my life I really understood what writing was about–trying to get something real across to another faraway person through this incredibly abstract medium.” – Page 209

When Fenton finally confronted the silence in his family about AIDS at 3AM in their Kentucky home before his morning flight back to San Francisco:

“I’m filled with bitterness and rage that no one will acknowledge that Larry was my lover and that he died of AIDS, and I’m here to give the first annual AIDS prevention speech.” – Page 216

Fenton contemplating on our own insulated myth that we might live forever (if we are HIV-negative):

“It’s just that HIV, with its extended incubation period, its prolonged illnesses, its often horrifying complications, its impact on close-knit neighborhoods and communities, is forcing gay men of my generation to acknowledge what our life– and youth-obssessed society prefers to deny.” Page 232

Fenton’s mom, telling him she understands that love is not gender-dependent:

“And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy.

I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself.

I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.” – Page 234.

Fenton, on love and death

“I love better now, more wholly and completely, not because I have learned some exotic technique but because I know death.” Page 235.

Today, I gained a new perspective. A friend told me I should join her in the AIDS walk in San Francisco this summer. I’m in Seattle now, but one day I’ll make it to San Francisco.

Also, if you live in Seattle, here is a list of restaurants who will be donating to Dine out for Life on April 26.

The Trouble with User Experience Design

I am–for most professional intents and purposes–a User Experience Designer. That’s the job title on my business card and LinkedIn profile. That’s how I’m introduced. I go to UX conferences, I read UX books, go to UX Happy Hours, and generally have a good time with UX people. Some days it feels as if I eat, sleep, dream, and soak in UX bath salts.

Yet, I’ve always had trouble with the term “User Experience”, and especially the implication that one can design a specific experience for someone else. It inevitably conjures up images of Winston Smith’s primal urges and the dystopian question whether androids dream of electric sheep.

Take a deep breath, sit back. Grab your favorite drink, and let me take you through a roundabout way of explaining why I feel this way. The TL;DR version will be at the end.

In my night job, I teach yoga. Last night, in my Intro to Yoga class I introduced a concept called svadhyaya, translated from Sanskrit as self-study, self-inquiry, or self-reflection. (For fellow etymology nerds out there, sva = self, dhyaya is from the verb dhyai, “to contemplate, to call to mind”.)

“So, self-study, like, spiritually?”, a student asked.

“Possibly”, I replied, “What about noticing where your feet and knees and shoulders are? And how you’re breathing right now?” Being aware of where you are in space and what you’re doing is also a fine way to self-reflect. This habit, with practice, and over time, can show up elsewhere outside the yoga mat. You’ll start to notice when you’re slumping at our desk, or that your breath shortens when someone cuts us off in traffic.

If being aware of where your toes are turns out to be useful in other parts of your life, great. “But, I don’t pretend to know how you should reflect spiritually. That is your personal experience.” I told her.

I see a lot of yoga teachers talking about feelings and emotions with their students, and I’m not that brave. It’s not my business to tell someone how to “feel”. If I suggest that you ought to feel divine bliss in a yoga pose, and you’re actually in pain and feeling shitty, both of us are imposing someone else’s reality on ourselves, and how fun is that?

In other words, my user experience is not your user experience.

The only thing I can do when I teach yoga is to make sure the surface is even, the floor is clean, and you feel safe, so that you can confidently work on getting strong and flexible or whatever it is that you need from yoga.

Similarly, in design, it’s my business to do everything I can to create, provide and fine-tune all the factors necessary for a functional and beautiful product. It’s my job to make sure that my design is useful and understandable and all these things.

But, as Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age said:

Since each person brings her own attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions to any situation, no designer can determine exactly what experience someone has.” – pg 5, Designing for the Digital Age.

We don’t have to look to far to see evidence of this. For some people, the iPhone and iOS devices provide a superior user experience. For others, it’s Android. For yet some others, it’s Windows Phone. I love my Mac to a disturbing degree, but I’m sure there are those who will enrage at the sight of the glowing fruit that I love to fondle.

For a non techy example (and for you foodies): while I love a juicy Portabella sandwich, a boyfriend I once had won’t touch a fork that’s been in the same zipcode as a mushroom.

I think of myself as an Interaction Designer, but I don’t mind (so much, anymore) when I get called a User Experience Designer. I get that we need a word to rally around and to communicate, and there’s no reason to be pedantic about the semantics. I’ve come to fully accept it. But, I’m also aware that the user experience is likely never going to be 100% my own doing.

TL;DR: We can’t really design an “experience”, since everyone’s experience is based on their attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and choice of fruit. The best we can do is to set up the environment in which a person’s experience can be optimized.

“It is interesting reading your reactions. Your five predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication: a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One.

While the others experienced this in a general way, your experience is far more specific. Vis-à-vis: love.”

One Leg at a Time: The New Chillout Manifesto

I’ve seen a couple Hotmail ads popping up around town and have managed to turn a blind eye, until recently when I got bombarded by them at SeaTac Airport. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, lucky you. You must not be the target audience or, “lifestyle fit” for “The New Busy”, according to the ads creator.

Introducing: The New Busy

  • Thinks 9-5 is a cute idea.
  • Puts their pants on two legs at a time. (ORLY?)
  • Woke up with a bunch of stamps on their hands. (Sounds like an SNL skit of Post Office Employees Gone Wild.)
  • Would be open to taking a class in their sleep. (I’d sleep through that… Oh come on, that was kinda funny.)
  • … And a whole bunch of other stuff that makes you go… wtf?

I am not the New Busy

I am the Normal Busy. Here’s how my life went the past couple days:

  1. Thursday: Went to bed @ 1:35am. Woke up @ 7:09am. 55-ish minute commute. Worked until 5. Taught yoga 7-8:30pm. Drove to the airport @9. Red-eye flight Seattle-Atlanta 10:55-6am local time. Sleep time: intermitten on the plane for 3 hours.
  2. Friday: Checked in hotel at 7:30am. Worked on presentation. Backed up computer. Crashed for a few hours. Went in the office @ 1. Went to the .NET rocks event @ 5. Dinner with team lead till 10pm. Back to hotel. Worked on presentation. Slept @ 2:18pm. Sleep time: 3 hours.
  3. Saturday: Woke up @ 7:35am local time. More prepping. ReMix Atlanta all day. Gave talk at 1:30pm. Met up with an old friend at 5:30pm. Went to the speakers’ dinner at 6:30pm. On the road again at 7:45pm. Got to ATL airport at 8:30pm. Flight delayed till 10:30pm. Got back in Seattle at 12:39am local time. Left the airport at 1:19am. Got to bed at 2:26am. Sleep time:5 hours 16 minutes.

(I know the exact details of my sleep and wake time thanks to the iPhone app Sleep Cycle.)

The New Busy Would Have a HeartBurn By Now

I did not put my life’s schedule here to show how “busy” I am. I know I’m not that busy. I know I’ve got *nothing* on a lot of people. I don’t have kids, pets, or plants. I’m not directly responsible for any living, sentient beings. My boyfriend and I see each other 5 times a year (okay, maybe 6). In other words, I live a very selfish life, concerning only with keeping one single thing functioning: me.

And I’m barely keeping up with that.

So, when I was going through the security line at Seatac airport and the Hotmail ads lining the trays smugly told me that “The New Busy would have had their belt off by now”, I was slightly irked, but amused. I’m surprised The New Busy even bother to wear belt, and not elastic waist pants.

When I got back to Seattle from Atlanta late last night, again, the New Busy was in my face. “The New Busy always has a suitcase packed.” That’s because the New Busy never unpacks, I thought, thinking of George Clooney and the movie Up in the Air. The New Busy would have had a divorce by now. How’s that for an ad?

Vienna Waits For You

Years ago when I was an intern at WaMu eCommerce (yup, *that* WaMu), my mentor Keith Willsey told me to read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. I’ve since read it at least once a year, and it never gets old. Among many of the messages mentioned are: “Vienna waits for you”, taken from Billy Joel’s title song.

Slow down, you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight
Too bad but it’s the life you lead
you’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need

The Imagination Needs Moodling

Here’s what Brenda Ueland said in If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit:

“I learned…that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.” — Brenda Ueland

I love this book so much that after reading it over several times, I now subject everyone who even so much as breathes only one word about wanting to write to it. “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.” I’d insist. So, I gave my book to a coworker at work, and after reading that, he, in turn, gave me another book to read: Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie.

What You Don’t See is What You Get

On the flight from Seattle to Atlanta and from Atlanta back to Seattle, I grokked the book. As soon as I return this copy to its rightful owner, I’m getting one of my own so I can highlight and make notes on the margins to my heart’s content.

In the chapter, What You Don’t See is What You Get, Gordon says,

The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity.

A healthier alternative is the Orbit of trust that allows time — without immediate, concrete evidence of productivity — for the miracle of creativity to occur.

The New Chill-out (Chillaxin’?) Manifesto

So, I hereby would like to write The Normal Busy Manifesto, and I’d love it if you add to it as you see fit.

  • I’m going to resist the urge to get busy for busy’s sakes.
  • I’m going to put my pants on one leg at a time.
  • I’m going to look at the food I’m eating.
  • I’m going to sit on my cushion everyday.
  • I’m going to, as the Boss said, “I want to know if love is wild. I want to know if love is real”

Hatin' on the New Busy :)

Hatin' on the New Busy ads 🙂

The Pursuit of Happiness

Throughout this past week and a couple before that, I have been randomly running into the concept of “happiness” everywhere I looked. My guess is, because it’s the end of the year and also the end of what TIME Magazine called The Decade from Hell (geez, sensational much?), a whole lot of us are reflecting more than usual, and movies like Up in the Air have got us asking, “What am I doing with my life?”, and “What is it all for?”

On Friday, I read the article This is the Greatest Good by Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, who suggests:

“So it is time to reassert the noble philosophy of the Enlightenment. In this view, every human being wants to be happy, and everybody counts equally. It follows that progress is measured by the overall scale of human happiness and misery. And the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness in the world and (especially) the least misery. I can think of no nobler ideal.”

Now, I won’t go into what exactly constitute happiness, because that in itself is a giant black hole, and it’s the crux of the argument that what Richard Layard proposes is not practical, nor desired, as this dude said in the counter-essay: The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand.

“For one thing, pain too will be part of any rich human life as, say, when people fall in love. For another, pleasure comes in all sorts of different guises that can no more be compared than can the joy of reading a book with the buzz of dancing until dawn.

Today’s utilitarians believe they have overcome this difficulty, since we can now observe people in scanners: pleasure centres light up in the brain, producing an apparently objective measure.

Only it isn’t. The problem is that there is no way to read a brain directly: no grey fold or ganglion is pre-labelled ‘happiness'”. – Mark Vernon

I very much see where these two guys are coming from. Today my friend Andy briefly talked about why we haven’t been out and about partying as much like we used to, and I mentioned what my senior yoga teacher Judith Lasater said in an interview:

“There’s a difference between fun and enjoyment. Fun is something I might want to do to get away from my life and enjoyment is something I can bring into my life. With fun, I’m thinking of trying to escape for the moment. Enjoyment is something that brings me into my life. It is the attitude I have within my life.”

It’s not a stretch to say that we are all pursuing something called happiness. We all want to have fun, to enjoy life, to be happy. Why then, does happiness seem so elusive? I have a couple theories, but I want to hear from you. What do you think? What’s your definition of happiness? And according to that, are you happy?

You don't want to see my unhappy face, trust me.

You don’t want to see my unhappy face, trust me.

What Should I Do with My Life?

Recently, my friend Howard tweeted:

@howardcwu is holding his own Job Summit. What needs to be done to turn around the real economy (not just stock market) and add living wage jobs? #jobs

To which I replied:

@howardcwu my first inclination is to urge everyone to read this article “What should I do with my life?” by Po Bronson

I wrote this blog post talking about the very same issue a while back in February in my Twentysomethingism blog, and thought it’d fit in nicely here.


So, with the US economy exploding like a pot pie that’s been in the microwave too long, and layoffs now happening as often as we brush our teeth, most people are happy to just get a job, or have a job.

Is the question, “What should I do with my life?” still valid? I mean, is it a luxury to ask that kind of question? Really, who are *we*, the common people, the peons with a mortgage and no golden parachute in the wing, to ask that kind of lofty question?

I’m going to put out something really bold here, something that will probably stir up some pots: I really do believe that asking The Question is more important now than ever. I believe that when we lose everything, especially when we lose a golden handcuff, is when we dig deep down and ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, the ones we are too busy to think about otherwise.

One of my favorite writers about this is Po Bronson, and it is incredibly amazing what he wrote 7 years ago is still hitting the spot today. I’m going to quote some of my favorite passages from Po from the Fast Company article “The real meaning of success — and how to find it” printed in 2002 here.

It’s time to define the new era. Our faith has been shaken. We’ve lost confidence in our leaders and in our institutions. Our beliefs have been tested. We’ve discredited the notion that the Internet would change everything (and the stock market would buy us an exit strategy from the grind). Our expectations have been dashed. We’ve abandoned the idea that work should be a 24-hour-a-day rush and that careers should be a wild adventure. Yet we’re still holding on.

There’s a way out. Instead of focusing on what’s next , let’s get back to what’s first. The previous era of business was defined by the question, Where’s the opportunity? I’m convinced that business success in the future starts with the question, What should I do with my life? Yes, that’s right. The most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings is the most urgent and pragmatic approach to sustainable success in our organizations.

People don’t succeed by migrating to a “hot” industry (one word: dotcom) or by adopting a particular career-guiding mantra (remember “horizontal careers”?). They thrive by focusing on the question of who they really are — and connecting that to work that they truly love (and, in so doing, unleashing a productive and creative power that they never imagined). Companies don’t grow because they represent a particular sector or adopt the latest management approach. They win because they engage the hearts and minds of individuals who are dedicated to answering that life question.

This is not a new idea. But it may be the most powerfully pressing one ever to be disrespected by the corporate world. There are far too many smart, educated, talented people operating at quarter speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of modern civilization. There are far too many people who look like they have their act together but have yet to make an impact. You know who you are. It comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don’t. Period.

Of course, addressing the question, What should I do with my life? isn’t just a productivity issue: It’s a moral imperative. It’s how we hold ourselves accountable to the opportunity we’re given. Most of us are blessed with the ultimate privilege: We get to be true to our individual nature. Our economy is so vast that we don’t have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part, we get to choose. That choice isn’t about a career search so much as an identity quest.

Asking The Question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. There is nothing more brave than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be someone you’re not. There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice. Asking The Question is nothing short of an act of courage: It requires a level of commitment and clarity that is almost foreign to our working lives.


Every corporate cat eventually asks, "What should I do with my life?"

Every corporate cat eventually asks, "What should I do with my life?"